A lot of Newbery books go out of their way to be cute and sentimental—A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck seems to do the opposite. Not that there's no cuteness or senimentality in its fast-paced pages, but it's all cut with salt and vinegar and the dusty country realism of Grandma Dowdel.
Grandma Dowdel first made her appearance in A Long Way from Chicago, a series of short stories narrated by her Chicago born and bred grandson, Joey. This sequel is narrated by Joey's younger sister, Mary Alice, who goes to live with Grandma for a whole year by herself in 1937 due to a crippling economic recession.
The format is similar to that of the first book: Mary Alice's stories are snapshots of highlights, though there's more continuity than in Joey's narrative. Peck's prose is improved, even more poetic and more comedic. Mary Alice is a little sassier and more pert than her brother, making her commentary on Grandma's escapades even funnier.
Once again, we're put in a hard place. A Long Way from Chicago was tricky because Grandma was the kids's authority figure but seemed to operate on a lower scale of morality even than her city-raised grandchildren. If anything, Grandma Dowdel is even more out of control in A Year Down Yonder, but she also seems more tender somehow.
Are Peck's depictions of rural Indiana accurate? They sure seem to be. Mostly these tales are down-to-earth and funny, though the one in which a naked woman runs down the town's main street may put some people off (don't worry, it's not graphic or nearly as inappropriate as it sounds). There are also moments of extreme pathos, such as the aftermath of the turkey shoot.
The denouement will leave most adult readers with a lump in their throat, and even most kids will be able to note the mixture of sweet and sad in Mary Alice's tone. We've grown to love Grandma Dowdel, despite her barbarian antics, and the difficulty she herself has in displaying her own affection for her beloved grandkids.
Peck here has crafted a genuine masterpiece. By turns thoughtful and sad, romantic and tender, and outright hilarious, he writes so that we can smell Grandma Dowdel's amazing cooking, feel Mary Alice's embarrassment on her first day at school in her adopted town, and agree when Mary Alice pronounces her "happily ever after" at the end.
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