Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Newbery Wayback Machine: A Year Down Yonder, by Richard Peck (2001)

It is 1937, and Mary Alice's father has lost his job and his apartment. While he and Mary Alice's mother move into a single room, and older brother Joey heads off to join the Civilian Conservation Corps, Mary Alice herself is shuttled away from Chicago, and down to Grandma Dowdel's home in rural Illinois. A Year Down Yonder does indeed cover nearly a year in Mary Alice's life, as she learns to navigate her new school, comes to understand the rhythms of small-town life, and bonds with her grandmother, an imposing woman whose gruff, threatening exterior conceals a caring heart.

In many ways, Richard Peck's novel, which won the 2001 Newbery Medal, was even at the time something of a throwback. Featuring a protagonist who is 15 at the book's outset, and consisting of a series of vignettes rather than a single, unified story, A Year Down Yonder reminded me of Anne of Avonlea (1909), It's Like This, Cat (1963), and similar episodic books that feature a teenage protagonist, but appeal to younger readers.

I'm unconvinced that Yonder is anything like as effective as the two novels that I mentioned, however -- although I'll also freely admit that what we may actually be looking at is my personal biases and tastes as a reader. It's a short book -- a mere 130 pages in my copy -- and I just don't feel like it has anything like enough room to develop the secondary characters sufficiently. This was especially true given the ending (spoiler alert!), in which an adult Mary Alice returns to her grandmother's house and marries Royce McNabb, who moves to town halfway through the book. But Royce has barely a dozen speaking lines in the novel, and I didn't feel like I knew him well enough for that ending to have any emotional heft.

From what I've read, a lot of the love for A Year Down Yonder (and its predecessor, A Long Way From Chicago, which Honored in 1999) comes from a love for the character of Grandma Dowdel, who is at the book's center. The thing is...I just didn't like her very much. She has a great deal of kindness towards the unfortunate and downtrodden, but she also has a streak of vindictiveness that was hard for me to deal with, and a tendency to kill mosquitoes with sledgehammers, metaphorically speaking. When the town boys are knocking down outhouses for their Halloween pranks, Grandma deals with this by...setting up a trip wire in her back yard, hiding, and then, once the lead boy has tripped on the wire and broken his nose on the concrete walk, throwing glue all over him. The whole story reminded me of nothing so much as this xkcd cartoon:

Similarly, later in the book, Grandma Dowdel's artist boarder has managed to sneak the local postmistress into the attic, and is painting her in the nude. The snake that lives in the attic falls on the postmistress, who runs screaming downstairs, and then begins to run back to her house, sans clothes. What does Grandma do? Why, she says, "That's too good a show to keep to ourselves," and goes outside and fires off her shotgun so that everyone in town will look outside to see what's happening and catch an eyeful of the postmistress. I think that's intended as comedic, but I gotta tell you, it just left me feeling icky.

A lot of people love this book, and so your take on it may be radically different from mine. But I'm not a fan, and would have preferred the Newbery to go to a different title that year -- perhaps one of the four Honor books, which included Because of Winn-Dixie and Joey Pigza Loses Control.

Friday, June 1, 2018

2019 Contenders: The Penderwicks At Last, by Jeanne Birdsall

Lydia Penderwick, now eleven years old and just as exuberant as she was as a toddler in The Penderwicks in Spring, has heard tales of Arundel all her life. Now, as the Penderwick diaspora converges for a long-awaited wedding, she gets to experience the magical estate firsthand.

18498292Jeanne Birdsall walks a tricky tightrope in The Penderwicks At Last. One one hand, she has been adamant from the beginning that this series will stay middle grade, and that each entry in the series will focus on the characters that make it a middle grade book. This will be no Anne of Green Gables, following its original protagonist well into adulthood. On the other hand, the readers of the series are devoted to the four older sisters and deeply invested in their various fates. Will Skye marry Jeffrey?! (There are apparently some people on Goodreads who feel VERY STRONGLY about this.) Will Batty marry Jeffrey? (That one has been my daughter's and my prediction since the beginning.) Will Skye become an astrophysicist?

Setting the book at Arundel is a elegant way to solve the problem. Seeing a familiar place through new eyes provides a way to balance the narrative between past and present, and a wedding is a classic narrative device for assembling the whole cast of characters. And they are indeed assembled: Aunt Claire and Turon; Alec and his new dog (RIP Hoover); gardener Cagney (now a paterfamilias). Even Mrs. Tifton is (hilariously) along for the ride.

Birdsall provides enough resolution of old tensions and strong hints about future plans to satisfy fans, while keeping the focus firmly on Lydia and her concerns. Most of the drama with the older Penderwicks sisters takes place in the background, filtered through Lydia's perspective. Meanwhile, the iconic places in Arundel are recognizable, but often changed. There are sheep in the field of the enormous bull who almost trampled Batty, and the manicured lawns have been turned into meadows where bobolinks (and eleven-year-olds) can hide.

There are new inhabitants as well - mainly Cagney's family, with whom Lydia spends most of her time - but also, oddly, Batty's ex-boyfriend and his amazing three-legged great dane. It can be a risky proposition to introduce new characters in a series finale, but the new additions are as well-drawn as the old favorites. (One minor quibble: the Kirkus review mentioned the default whiteness of the book and series, and that is certainly true, but I was more disappointed by the heteronormativity. I had really headcanoned Skye as a lesbian, and possibly on the asexual spectrum. So there, Skeffrey shippers.)

The novel is as much a meditation on time as anything else. Birdsall seems to understand that we want Arundel and the Penderwicks to stay the same forever (I honestly can't even talk about this book out loud without crying), but she won't let them remain in stasis. Like Lydia, we have to prance, leap, and gambol into the future.

(As for Newbery chances: doubtful. "Doesn't have to stand alone" be damned,  the committee is not going to choose this elegiac series-ender for a gold sticker.)