I’m on record as believing that the Newbery committee has a thing for the Depression. I can name at least three or four books in the past decade or so set in the Depression that have won the Newbery medal. (The only other setting quite so popular is medieval England.) So several years ago, when my mother sent me the Newbery award-winning A Year Down Yonder, by Richard Peck, I was skeptical. As it turned out, I needn’t have been: the book was individual, lively, warm, and very funny.
A Long Way from Chicago (a Newbery honor book) actually precedes A Year Down Yonder. In this one, Joey (the narrator) and Mary Alice spend several summers in a row away from their parents, down in a small, rural town with their Grandma Dowdel. At first, the children are wary. Grandma is strong-minded, unconventional, and opinionated, and she prizes her privacy. She also believes in the liberal use of firearms when people infringe on that privacy — when they blow up her mailbox, for instance, or try to steal her melons. She’s not above tricking the snobby and the greedy, either. I won’t reveal the outcome of the story, but there’s an elaborate chapter that involves an eviction, a stovepipe hat, a church bazaar, and a wicked banker that had me laughing aloud and wondering how I could become a Grandma Dowdel in my old age. And the book doesn’t focus on the grimness of the Depression. Of course it touches on it, since everyone is living with the consequences of joblessness and poverty, but the real center of the book is elsewhere. In the end, Joey and Mary Alice learn not just to admire but to love their strange, reserved, oddly generous grandmother. I think I liked this one even better than A Year Down Yonder — the flavor of the whole town comes through beautifully.
A Season of Gifts is good, but doesn’t quite live up to the other two. In this book, a new family — a preacher and his wife and children — move in next door to Grandma Dowdel. Since Grandma doesn’t “neighbor” and she doesn’t go to church, the family initially sees her as a potentially dangerous lunatic and stays out of her path. But inevitably, they are all drawn into her orbit: first, little Ruth Ann, who wants to be just like her, then Bob, whom she rescues from a nasty situation with town bullies, then the mother, then the father, and finally fourteen-year-old, Elvis-obsessed Phyllis. This novel doesn’t look at Grandma quite as closely as the other books, and her eccentricities aren’t shared as warm-heartedly. Still, it was enjoyable to read, and I liked spending a little more time with Grandma Dowdel.
These books are comedies. But Richard Peck does a good job of making us understand the real connection beneath the gruffness and farce. There’s a chapter at the end of A Long Way from Chicago, when Joey, on his way to serve in the second World War, travels on a troop train through Grandma’s town. He sends a telegram, letting her know he’d be coming through in the middle of the night, though they won’t stop. When they roll through, he sees a sight:
She stood at her door, large as life — larger, framed against the light from her front room. Grandma was there, watching through the watches of the night for the train to pass through. She couldn’t know what car I was in, but her hand was up, and she was waving — waving big at all the cars, hoping I’d see.
And I waved back. I waved long after the window filled with darkness and long distance.