During the 1937 recession, Mary Alice is forced to leave her Chicago family to live with her grandmother in a small, remote Illinois town. Her parents are too poor to sustain their daughter, and her brother is off planting trees for the Civilian Conservation Corps. Luckily, Mary Alice has a place to stay for the year. Grandma Dowdel is not like other grandmothers. She is a large, aggressive woman who pulls out her shotgun at the tip of a hat. A Year Down Yonder describes Mary Alice’s one-year stay in a place so different from her hometown. Over time, she discovers that her grandmother is more than meets the eye.
What did I think of it?
A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck is a sequel to A Long Way From Chicago, but I read the sequel first because it won the Newbery Medal in 2001. A Year Down Yonder reads less like a novel and more like a collection of short stories about a trigger-happy grandmother. I appreciated the presence of strong adult characters in this young adult work. Unlike many protagonists in YA, Mary Alice is not rebellious and does not try to distance herself from the adults. Rather, she works alongside her grandmother, trying hard to understand this woman’s obnoxious personality. Mary Alice discovers that behind the harsh exterior is a woman who has compassion for those living on the margin of society. The narrator (Mary Alice) first discovers this last quality at a gathering at the home of Mrs. Abernathy. Every year on Armistice Day, people from all over town gather at Mrs. Abernathy’s home to shoot paper targets and eat homemade burgoo (a type of stew). Mary Alice is shocked by what she witnesses at her first Armistice Day celebration. Instead of charging ten cents for a cup of soup, Grandma Dowdel stands behind the counter and milks the customers for all they’ve got. Like the narrator, the reader is horrified by the old woman’s behavior. But at the end of the chapter, Mary Alice learns that the soup was sold to raise money for the care of Mrs. Abernathy’s son, a severely wounded World War I veteran. This touching story was my favorite in A Year Down Yonder.
Grandma Dowdel’s personality jumps off the page, but the reader doesn’t learn much about Mary Alice. The protagonist doesn’t have much of a personality. Although I appreciated the respect she showed her grandmother, I also found it hard to believe that a teenager could be so obedient. The humor also felt a bit flat in many parts of the book. While I can’t say that I found A Year Down Yonder entertaining, I value the work for its themes. Because my favorite story was near the beginning of the novel, I expected the rest of the book to be equally poignant. Unfortunately, I was disappointed by the lack of originality in the other chapters. I cannot tell you if A Year Down Yonder should have won the Newbery Award because I have not read the other children’s books that were published in 2000, but I didn’t feel that the stories were as well-executed as they could have been.
[Grandma Dowdel to Mary Alice after she introduces her granddaughter to Mrs. Abernathy’s son]: “The trenches are all filled in, but the boys are still dying.”
This book counts toward the Newbery Medal Challenge.