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.

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