A Year Down Yonder



A Year Down Yonder

by Richard Peck

Age: 11+

Interests: Great Depression, small town life, grandparents, high school, poverty, bullying, romance

Dial Books: 2000

130 pages

NB. This book is a sequel to Peck’s earlier novel A Long Way from Chicago.

Also by this author: The River Between Us, Here Lies the Librarian, A Season of Gifts, Secrets at Sea, The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail

It’s 1937 and times are so hard that 15-year-old Mary Alice’s parents are sending her away from Chicago, to stay a year with her grandmother in a sleepy rural town. Mary Alice is, of course, less than pleased with the plan, especially since Grandma Dowdel is pretty cantankerous and tough. Grandma Dowdel is at the very centre of this tale – a very, very large woman, unsentimental, cross, and tough. She’s got a shotgun behind the woodbox and the whole town knows she’s trigger happy, so they steer clear of her. Mary Alice starts at the high school and is soon the victim of bullying, until her tough grandma sets the bully straight. In a series of crazy adventures, she begins to warm up to her grandma and even begins to detect the well-hidden, softer side of Grandma Dowdel. Times are hard and the old woman is an expert on survival. She leads Mary Alice in midnight raids to pilfer pecans and pumpkins, but then shares the pies she makes with others. She defeats Hallowe’en hooligans with a big tray of homemade glue, and traps foxes to earn money for Christmas presents, skinning them herself, of course. It takes a while for a big city girl to get used to this rough-and-ready lifestyle, but by the end of this momentous year and she Grandma Dowdel have grown quite fond of each other, and she has become attached to her new home. She’s even met the boy who will become her husband after the war.

The novel is more of a series of short stories and even though it is a sequel, it definitely works as a stand-alone read. Just as Mary Alice is alarmed at the wild and coarse lifestyle of her new home, I found myself raising an eyebrow more than once at Grandma’s shenanigans. I guess I’ve just got too much of a ‘mom’ brain to find shotgun-waving threats and mild vigilantism all that humorous. I am troubled by our culture’s long acceptance of book and movie depictions of the extra-legal settling of scores, an acceptance that can only enable the violence so prevalent these days. Of course this novel is by no means the only culprit on this score, so it should not bear the brunt of blame. I just wanted to explain why I did not enjoy the book as others might. Perhaps young readers will find it more entertaining than I did, after all, it is a depiction of a time long ago and very different from the present day.

At any rate, the intent is for humour, and the quirky exploits of Grandma and the others are indeed pretty wacky. The opinions and struggles of the main character are engaging and relatable. The overall themes of this book are loyalty to family and generosity to others in need, as well as looking beneath a prickly exterior to the warm heart beneath.


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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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