Sure, A Year Down Yonder takes place in a challenging historical time and place, but Mary Alice tells her tales of poverty and wartime with optimism and warmth. She lingers over the little things that bring her happiness, like when her brother Joey surprises her by visiting for Christmas:
But what I remember best about that evening is the three of us walking home from church. I see us yet, strolling the occasional sidewalks with our arms around Grandma, just to keep her from skidding, because she said she was a hog on ice. And every star above us was a Christmas star. (4.120)
It's not about the presents they get each other, or even how delicious Christmas dinner is. Instead, the tone of the book is set by the love that these characters share for one another—and how much they treasure the time spent in each other's company.
A Year Down Yonder is a classic coming-of-age tale because it chronicles Mary Alice Dowdel's transition from childhood to young adulthood. When Mary Alice shows up at her Grandma Dowdel's house, she's a teenager who thinks that she knows everything—but it turns out that she has quite a bit to learn.
Over the course of the novel, we watch Mary Alice grow more mature as she considers how she can take care of her grandmother (instead of the other way around), and even witness her falling in love for the first time. Goosebumps! (Not that kind of goosebumps.)
Of course, this book also qualifies as historical fiction, since it's firmly set in the late 1930s, just after the Great Depression. In addition to getting the flavor of small town life during that era, we also become familiar with terms like the Roosevelt Recession, the Works Progress Administration, and, of course—the Twitter of that time—the Philco radio.
And even though it's the tail end of the Depression, Mary Alice still witnesses—and experiences firsthand—a lot of financial worry and people having to go without. That gives us insight into the difficulties of the Depression era (with things like new clothes and pie considered the greatest extravagances), and how it felt for people when their family members and loved ones went overseas to serve in the war.
There's no mystery here.
The title of A Year Down Yonder is quite straightforward—it refers to the scope of the book. The bulk of the novel takes places during the year that Mary Alice Dowdel spends "down yonder" with her Grandma Dowdel, and all the adventures and scrapes that occur within that year.
The word "yonder" indicates just how far away Grandma Dowdel's house feels from Chicago, even though it's in the same state. The place where Grandma lives is a little old-timey town, and couldn't be more different than the bustling city that Mary Alice is accustomed to.
At the beginning of the book, it's clear as can be that Mary Alice is not excited about going to a small town and staying with her Grandma Dowdel for the year. So why does she go back to her grandmother's house to get married instead of staying in Chicago? Good question. Especially since, as Mary Alice tells us:
It would have been much easier to get married in Chicago. I'd held on to the apartment in Rogers Park and took the El every morning down to the Tribune Tower to my cub reporter job. (8.3)
Here's a good answer: Over the course of the year that Mary Alice spends with Grandma Dowdel, she comes to appreciate the small town lifestyle—and more than anything, to associate her grandmother with a sense of home and safety.
Of course, when it's time for the wedding, there's no one else around. Mary Alice's brother is fighting in the war and her parents are in Seattle. But we don't think that's the only reason the wedding is held in Grandma D's front room. Indeed, Mary Alice tells us herself that the location is important to her.
Though it meant I'd have to ride the wartime version of the Wabash Blue Bird, sitting on my luggage in the aisle, I wanted to be married in Grandma's house. (8.3)
Makes sense that the home where she made her last transition—from child to adult—should also be the place where she makes her next big life change: from single to married.
How would you feel if you were sent to a podunk town in the middle of nowhere against your will?
Mary Alice Dowdel is a city girl, and she feels awfully sorry for herself when she arrives in Grandma Dowdel's town. In addition to being tiny and boring, the town is also in serious decline:
The recession of thirty-seven had hit Grandma's town harder than it had hit Chicago. Grass grew in the main street. Only a face or two showed in the window of The Coffee Pot Cafe. Moore's Store was hurting for trade. Weidenbach's bank looked to be just barely in business. (1.14)
Things are pretty grim during this phase of the recession, and the book doesn't shy away from depicting how shops are going out of business and people are going hungry. But despite how bleak things are at the beginning, it's clear that the people in this small town care about each other—and Mary Alice definitely comes to find that charming and refreshing. In fact, in under a year, she feels like she knows this place better than Chicago, where she's lived her entire life:
I'd made my way to school every morning lost in thought. By now I knew who lived in every house along the way. I knew this town as I'd never known Chicago. (7.5)
There are definitely benefits to a close-knit small town, and Mary Alice ends up appreciating them all after spending a year with her Grandma Dowdel.
The language in A Year Down Yonder is charmingly simple, which makes it easy to get lost in the story since you don't have to strain over big words or flowery poetics. At the same time, there is some small town, old time slang you may have to decode—like, what's a cobhouse?—but for the most part the context will answer any questions you may have.
And when you're done reading, you can impress your friends with your endearing use of words like "dither," "privy," and "punkins." And of course "blunderbuss." It wouldn't be a Grandma Dowdel book without at least one of those.
A Year Down Yonder is accessible and friendly, with some rustic country charm. Mary Alice describes the world around her in great detail, and gives us insight into how she feels about each small interaction—whether it's with her grandmother, her crush, or even her cat:
By April Bootsie took time out from her busy schedule to bring me offerings. One afternoon I found a robin's egg on my bed. Had the robin flown in the open window and laid it? But no, Bootsie must have carried it in her mouth all the way up the house for me. I was touched. (6.9)
She doesn't just gloss over the fact that her cat leaves things for her; she goes into details about exactly how Bootsie must have transported the robin's egg through the house, and how it makes her feel to receive such a gift. Heartwarming, for sure.
Besides sharpshooting, Grandma Dowdel is also highly skilled in the art of pie-baking.
When Halloween comes around and the school puts on a party, Grandma Dowdel decides that she and Mary Alice are going to bring loads and loads of pecan and pumpkin pies. The trouble is that Grandma doesn't have any pumpkins or pecans in her yard—and so they have to steal them in the middle of the night:
We were in sight of home when I said, "Grandma, in your opinion, was taking those pumpkins steal—"
"We'll leave a pie on their porch," she said. "And don't tip them pecans out of the wagon. We've already picked them up once." (2.75-76)
Grandma Dowdel figures it's okay because they're not stealing for themselves. After all, in true Robin Hood fashion, they're just trying to make sure that everyone has enough to eat. When they show up at the party with all their pies, everyone falls upon them because these are hard times…and folks are hungry:
As she said later, we fed the multitudes. It was like the loaves and the fishes, with pie for all. (2.107)
Grandma's pies aren't just delectable baked goods. They're a way of helping the people around her, and making sure that they get to taste some true indulgence in these meager times. And really, they're a symbol for Grandma's way of doing business. She may break a few rules along the way, but most of her escapades end well and wind up serving a greater good.
In other words, the way Grandma operates, the ends often justify the means. And those pies? They're the "ends" in that scenario.
Mary Alice doesn't arrive at Grandma Dowdel's house alone.
When she goes to stay with her Grandma Dowdel, she brings her cat Bootsie with her. But her grandmother doesn't allow the cat in the house, and comes up with a rather unorthodox method for making sure that she accepts her new home:
"I rubbed butter on all four of her paws. That's what you do with a cat in a new place. By the time they've licked off all that butter, they're right at home. Works every time." (1.137)
Grandma butters Bootsie's paws so that she doesn't freak out about being in a new place; instead, the cat will be more preoccupied with eating all of that butter.
It may seem like a strange thing to do, especially when you actually try to picture someone rubbing butter on a cat's feet, but it shows that Grandma Dowdel recognizes how out-of-place Bootsie—and Mary Alice—both feel in their new digs. She even says that Mary Alice needs some buttering up, too:
Then Grandma said in a thoughtful voice, "And you better settle in too, girl. Or I'll butter your paws." (1.140)
She doesn't actually mean that she's going to butter Mary Alice's hands. It's just that she wants her granddaughter to get settled in and not to panic over her new situation. She needs to take things slow ("butter her paws") and come to regard this little town as her home.
In a dramatic twist (pun fully intended), a tornado hits Grandma Dowdel's small town, throwing into sharp focus what really matters to the characters. Instead of staying at school, Mary Alice runs home because she wants to check on her grandmother. And she's touched when she finds that Grandma has grabbed the cats so that they won't get hurt…even though she won't admit it aloud:
"Grandma, you saved them."
She shrugged that off. "I happened to be down in the cobhouse when the siren went."
That was a whopper. We both knew it. (7.22-24)
And afterwards, Grandma Dowdel doesn't just stay put and clean up her own house. She immediately goes out to take care of her neighbors—even the horrible Old Man Nyquist who no one wants to approach. She saves him from being trapped in his bedroom, even though she gets nothing but abuse for it:
"You old busybody buzzard," he growled at Grandma. "How'd you get in?" (7.37)
This is all Nyquist has to say after Grandma and Mary Alice pry him out from under his bedstead. Sheesh. But despite the abuse, Grandma and Mary Alice keep on truckin'.
We walked on toward the Wabash tracks, keeping an eye out for downed wires. Now I knew where we were heading next. (7.47-48)
The next step is to go see Mrs. Effie Wilcox. Of course, Grandma refuses to admit that she and Effie are best friends. But it's clear as day to Mary Alice—Grandma Dowdel cares about her family and friends, and she'll always go the extra step to make sure they're safe and sound.
A Year Down Yonder is told completely from Mary Alice Dowdel's perspective, which gives us an inside view into her feelings. So while she may look stoic on the outside when she's sent away from Chicago, the first person narration means that we know how she really feels about it:
...so I had to go down to live with Grandma Dowdel, till we could get on our feet as a family again. It meant I'd have to leave my school. I'd have to enroll in the hick-town school where Grandma lived. Me, a city girl, in a town that didn't even have a picture show. (P.9)
So we know exactly what Mary Alice thinks about her grandmother's town, her high school, and her classmates right from the get-go. Needless to say, she's not impressed.
She describes her classroom "at the top of some rickety stairs" where students sit "two-by-two in old-timey double desks" (1.45, 1.46). Regarding her classmates' hospitality, Mary Alice makes the point that "Anybody who thinks small towns are friendlier than big cities lives in a big city" (2.40).
Mary Alice isn't one to pull punches—she calls 'em like she sees 'em. And because we get the entire story delivered in her honest, down-to-earth voice, we always know what she really thinks of her surroundings.
Also, thanks to this first person point-of-view, we get to see, up close and personal, how her perspective of the town, her grandmother, and herself change over the course of the story.
The book opens with our young heroine in quite a state—she's being sent to live with her grandmother in a podunk town, and she doesn't want to because she's a self-described city girl from Chicago. Nonetheless, Mary Alice has to go because her parents are short on cash, and they can't afford to rent a place big enough in Chicago for her to stay on with them.
Mary Alice's first day at school leaves her pretty discouraged. She's outright bullied by one girl, and in the weeks to come the rest of the girls—except for one—ostracize her.
Still, month by month, she starts to find her place in her grandmother's town. Between all the holiday festivities, Grandma's crazy schemes, and the arrival of a cute new boy, Mary Alice settles in and maybe even comes to like small-town life a little.
But as Mary Alice grows closer to her grandmother, she also notices that Grandma Dowdel is not so invincible as she seems. She may be handy with a shotgun, but she's an old woman…and Mary Alice starts to worry about her.
Everything comes to a head when a tornado blows through town, and Mary Alice rushes home from school to make sure that her grandmother is safe. This is a turning point for Mary Alice. Up till now, she's worried here and there about Grandma Dowdel, but ultimately her grandmother has been her protector. This is the first time we see Mary Alice put her own safety on the line in order to ensure her grandmother is okay.
Grandma Dowdel is safe and sound, but Mary Alice faces yet another conundrum when the school year ends and her dad finds a full-time job.
This is good news for her family, but it means that she can return to Chicago—and Mary Alice is worried about leaving her grandmother alone. She offers to stay on, but Grandma Dowdel is firm and makes the decision for her; she tells Mary Alice to go back to Chicago, and that she can visit whenever she wants.
When Mary Alice heads back to Chicago, we don't know what's in store for her or how Grandma will fare in her absence. Thank goodness for the denouement! The book ends with a happy event that takes place at Grandma Dowdel's house several years later—Mary Alice and Royce McNabb are getting married.
It's the middle of WWII, Royce is home on leave, and no family members are able to make it to the wedding…except for Grandma Dowdel (of course). She's the one who gives Mary Alice away and sends her off into her very own happily ever after. Plot resolved.