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Newbery-winning ‘Year Down Yonder’ features crisp dialogue, pithy humor

SHARE Newbery-winning ‘Year Down Yonder’ features crisp dialogue, pithy humor

The year is 1937, when a recession following the Great Depression dictates life's necessities.

Fifteen-year-old Mary Alice is sent to stay with Grandma Dowdle, because her parents in Chicago can't afford to keep her with them. Joey has already left for the Civilian Conservation Corps, and now she is off to a farm with none of her friends, no conveniences, not even indoor plumbing.

Mary Alice and Joey visited Grandma Dowdle the summer before (told in "A Long Way From Chicago," a Newbery Honor Book), but this is not a vacation or a family visit.

Who knows when her parents will be able to rent a place big enough for the family or when she can return to her own school or familiar neighborhood? No one knows when she will see a picture show again.

Richard Peck's Newbery Award-winning novel, "A Year Down Yonder," like several of his previous works ("The Ghost Belonged to Me" and "Remembering the Good Times"), is one of a long line of stories about children who are cared for by grandparents. Books such as "Heidi" and "Dicey's Song" have themes where an irascible oldster takes a child, puts fear into them but eventually becomes an important mentor to the young protagonist.

As a child, Peck learned about his relatives as far back as Victorian times, which could account for his including the theme that life in the past, especially with an older caretaker, is a special place to have been.

"A Year Down Yonder" fits the pattern of a young person in the care of a cranky eccentric grandparent but is lifted out of a totally predictable plot by the author's crisp dialogue and pithy humor. Grandma Dowdle certainly is a grouch and a sore in the side of the community. She's a gun-toting self-willed old lady who knows what she wants and usually gets her way. She is also the best cook in town. When the ladies of the Daughters of the American Revolution (to which she has never been invited) hint at her making berry tarts for their social, she agrees only if they will hold the annual event in her front room. Desperation leads them to consent, but when they find two unexpected guests, their gentility is shocked to the core.

Peck has a wonderful cast of characters besides the colorful grandmother who "borrows" pecans and pumpkins in the middle of the night to make treats for the Halloween party. There are the Burdicks, who each have one blue eye and one green and are not "worth the powder and shot to blow them up. They'll chase livestock, suck eggs and lick the skillet. And steal? They'd steal a hot stove and come back for the smoke."

The school is run by Mr. Fluke, an ineffective principal, custodian, coach and shop teacher, and Miss Butler, who struggles to teach grammar and Shakespeare and direct a Christmas play. Mary Alice is befriended by the "starved-looking" Ina-Rae Gage and handsome Royce McNabb (his father is a government surveyor), who moves into the area causing heart palpitations.

While Mary Alice accepts the rhythm of Grandma's erratic ways, she also learns love, compassion and caring. The conclusion ties the story together nicely for readers of all ages.

Adults will enjoy the nostalgia of the '30s, and young readers will laugh at the antics in a "down home" story that will cause some speculation about growing old and older.

Peck's writing is varied in form and content. Besides novels for young readers, he is credited with adult fiction, picture books, poetry, short stories and two autobiographies, one about writing and teaching. He's written about teenage pregnancy ("Don't Look and It Won't Hurt"), death ("Close Enough to Touch"), suicide ("Remembering the Good Times") and time warps ("Voices After Midnight"). Most often his novels are full of satire ("Secret of the Shopping Mall") and wordplay that tickles the funny bone. One example is "Bel-Air Bambi and the Mall Rats" where the Babcock family is named Bambi, Buffie, Brick, Beth and Bill with friends called Gene Poole and Tanya Hyde.

He freely pokes fun at society, especially at school curriculum and administrators (he was a junior high teacher) and the society that perpetuates laziness and social groups.

Probably the message most evident in Peck's work is the importance of making decisions no matter what age the protagonist. In all his books Peck subtly includes the advice given to him as a young student to "act and think independently of your peers."

"I want to write novels that ask honest questions about serious issues. A novel is never an answer; it's always a question."

E-MAIL: marilou.sorensen@worldnet.att.net