The struggle is real.
At least it is for Mary Alice Dowdel, who has to leave her beloved Chicago and spend the next year with her eccentric grandmother in a town so small it doesn't even have a movie theater. The reason? It's 1937 and the Great Depression has left Mary Alice's parents in a tough spot. They can't afford an apartment in Chicago that's big enough for them and their two kids.
Mary Alice's brother, Joey, is two years older and male (bonus), so he gets to go to California to plant trees for the government. That sounds pretty exciting to Mary Alice, but that option isn't open to her. She's only fifteen. And she's a girl. So, as much as she dreads it, she has to leave her city and her friends behind and enroll in the "hick-town school" where her grandmother lives.
Needless to say, she's not thrilled.
Of course, Mary Alice has visited her grandmother before, and it's been a hoot. We're talking about a woman who once stole the sheriff's boat to illegally trap fish, so yeah—Grandma Dowdel is not your typical senior citizen. But in the past, Mary Alice has always had her brother along for the ride. And the visits have always been shorter summer stays.
In A Year Down Yonder, which was published in 2000, we see small-town Illinois and the unforgettable Grandma Dowdel from Mary Alice's perspective instead of her brother's. But this isn't just the same story rehashed in a girl's voice. Mary Alice brings a fresh perspective of the town and of Grandma Dowdel, with whom she establishes a nice relationship over the course of the book.
Mary Alice develops a few other relationships as well, getting up close and personal with a school bully, a mean girl, a New York artist, and—be still our Shmoopy heart—the utterly adorable Royce McNabb, the high school basketball star who catches every girl's eye.
Teen angst, town scandals, a budding romance, and a trigger-happy grandmother…all in a Newbery Medal–winning book. What more could you want?
Sure, Richard Peck's book A Year Down Yonder takes place over half a century ago. But that doesn't mean it's irrelevant today.
Mary Alice Dowdel is a girl who is going through the overwhelming and confusing process of growing up—and that's an experience that's pretty universal, whether your go-to technology is a Smartphone or a Philco radio.
In truth, the fact that Mary Alice is living in a different time makes her story all the more appealing. As Mary Alice becomes more aware of the world around her and the struggles everyone—including her own family—is facing, we begin to understand that her world isn't all that different from our own.
Yeah, yeah, she's living in 1937 and dealing with the aftermath of the Great Depression. But guess what? There are always people who are struggling, and lots of families have to make sacrifices to make ends meet. It's a valuable perspective to keep in mind, and as Mary Alice starts to realize that she has taken her family for granted, you may find yourself wondering a little bit about your own. Or about the people in your town who have it a little harder than you do. Or about your friends and some of the hardships they may face.
Either way, reading Mary Alice's story and watching her perspective shift may inspire you to make a little shift yourself. It's not all about Mary Alice. And it's not all about you, either.
Read All About It!
Learn more about Richard Peck and all of his works. He's a prolific writer, so you won't run out of material anytime soon.
Richard Peck states that he usually writes in the first person because it keeps the perspective young, instead of letting his own adult voice seep into it.
Getting Out of the Groove
Richard Peck has gotten quite a bit of acclaim for the Grandma Dowdel books, which are filled with American nostalgia. But he doesn't want to get stuck in a groove by just continuing to write about the same thing.
Even though he took on other careers as a young man, Richard Peck notes in a Q&A that he knew he wanted to be a writer when he was a mere tot of four years old.
A Full-Figured Woman
In case you doubted the fact that Kate Smith, the Songbird of the South, was a big celebrity in her day, here's a sample from her TV show.
Prefer to consume your books by listening to them? Spend three hours with Lois Smith's magical narration.
Blue Bird Express
Mary Alice always talks about riding the Wabash Blue Bird, which was a real train back in the day.
The Beginning of it All
If you look at the cover of A Year Down Yonder, you can see Grandma Dowdel standing up and larger than life, waiting for Mary Alice to come join her.