My first reaction when I received a copy of A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck in an envelope from my mother was to think, “Oh, Newbery people, how you love the Depression.” It seemed that I could remember an awful lot of Newbery award-winning books that mined that particular territory: suffering, poverty, bleakness. (In fact, looking over a list of Newbery winners, that impression is not quite fair. Only three since the year 2000 have taken place during the Depression. Ahem.)
What I didn’t know is that this book isn’t about poverty. It lives with it, of course: it takes place in a small, rural Illinois town during the worst of those years, so poverty is a reality for everyone. But the book is about a developing, loving relationship between the narrator, Mary Alice, and her Grandma Dowdel, with whom she has come to live for a year.
Grandma Dowdel is not like anyone else. She’s completely unpredictable, fearless, unconventional (but not, perish the thought, “quirky” or fey.) She’s a force of nature, and she will do absolutely anything to get her own way, particularly when she’s convinced she’s doing the right thing. During the course of the book, Grandma resorts to extortion, theft, burglary, breaking in and entering, trickery, and the liberal use of firearms — but I am not going to say another word about how or why. You’ll have to find out the circumstances for yourself. (I will say that there’s one episode involving a Works Progress Administration artist, a young woman from the post office, and a snake that had me hooting and wiping my eyes.)
The book isn’t mere comedy. Peck finds the raw places, too: this is a community that is touched not only by hardscrabble living but by the consequences of war, class differences, and old feuds. But it’s never clichéd, and it’s never sentimental. For a book that clocked in well under 150 pages, it had a lot to give. Just goes to show that I shouldn’t judge a Newbery winner by its time period.