She's a rich girl.
Not really. In fact, not at all. But that's the way fifteen-year-old Mary Alice Dowdel's classmates view her. She's from the big city of Chicago, so she must come from money, right?
Wrong. And that's just one of the misconceptions Mary Alice's classmates have about her.
Thing is, as the novel continues, we realize that Mary Alice has a few misconceptions, too—about country life, about her grandmother, and even about herself. But during her year in rural, southern Illinois, Mary Alice does a lot of growing up, and by the end of the book, we can see that her perspective has shifted. Turns out a year in a small town was just what she needed to expand her world view.
But how, exactly, does her year away change her? Let's take a look.
When the book opens, Mary Alice is feeling awfully sorry for herself because she can't stay at home in Chicago—she has to go live with her Grandma Dowdel:
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)
No movie theater? Sounds like a pretty rotten move to us, too.
But the truth is, at the beginning of the novel, Mary Alice has a pretty fixed view of herself and what she needs. She considers herself a city girl, and she can't imagine that anything positive could come out of spending a year in Grandma Dowdel's small town.
Of course, the reception she receives at the high school doesn't exactly improve her point of view.
I felt eyes on me from all over the room. Everybody was watching.
"I'll make ya welcome," Mildred rasped. She made a big fist and showed it to me, under the table. (1.66-67)
Um, thanks but no thanks.
But Mildred's threatening fist isn't even the worst of it. At least Mildred made eye contact. The other girls in Mary Alice's class snub her, following the example set by their mean girl leader, Carleen. And Carleen doesn't let up. As Mary Alice says in early December of the year:
Carleen Lovejoy was still looking straight through me, and she set the tone for the rest of the girls. I hadn't made a lot of headway in all these weeks. (4.3)
Carleen clearly considers Mary Alice a threat, and she isn't going to let anyone worm in on her position as queen bee.
So that leaves Mary Alice in a new town where she doesn't want to be, attending a new school where she doesn't fit in. That would be enough to send most people into a major bout of self-pity, and that's where Mary Alice is headed at the beginning of the story.
But here's the upside to living with Grandma Dowdel: there's so much going on, there's not a lot of time for wallowing.
Whether it's tripping up Halloween vandals, stealing pecans, or sneaking out to trap foxes, Grandma Dowdel always has a scheme going. And Mary Alice, at first a somewhat reluctant participant, soon becomes her grandma's right-hand woman at all turns.
And her grandmother, gruff though she can be at times, clearly has Mary Alice's back, too. That means Mary Alice has several things going for her in this small town:
(1) a fierce supporter who—yes, may be a senior citizen, but still—has the rest of the town cowed;
(2) plenty of activities to keep her busy and give her a sense of purpose; and
Wait. What? Adversity is a good thing?
Actually, yeah. It can be. Ever heard the saying, "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger?"
Sure, too much adversity can be a bad thing, but a little bit can help build character and lend perspective, and that's what it does for Mary Alice.
With no real friends at school and no other family around thanks to money issues (a.k.a., adversity), Mary Alice comes to depend upon her grandmother. And Grandma Dowdel is no slouch. When she takes Mary Alice along to trap foxes, Mary Alice notes, "She gave me the trapping basket to carry, making me part of this" (4.54). And later on she says:
I went out with her many a December night when the snow was on the ground. Something drew me away from the warm stove. I dreaded the scream of a trapped fox. But I'd have heard it anyway, in my head, at home.[…] There were little changes stirring in me. I began to notice how old Grandma was, how hard she worked herself, how far from town she'd roam in the frozen nights, across uneven ground. I began to want to be there with her, to make sure she'd come home safely. (4.60)
So, yeah. First, adversity takes her away from Chicago and forces her to spend time with her grandmother. And then, as Mary Alice watches—and helps—her grandmother face adversity, her perspective begins to change.
Of course, even in the midst of a recession and challenging financial times, teens will be teens. And Mary Alice is no exception. She's reached an age at which hormones and romance can become quite distracting—and she becomes a little more distracted than normal when a dreamboat named Royce McNabb joins her class.
Mary Alice observes Carleen immediately claiming the new hottie as her own, but in a nod to the independent spirit she likely inherited from her grandmother, Mary Alice decides that she doesn't have to play by Carleen's rules. She says as much to her grandmother when she asks if she can invite Royce over for a visit:
"Grandma, Carleen Lovejoy's set her cap for him. And I want to make my move before she makes hers." (6.68)
Ahh…the student has become the master. Okay, that may be overstating things a big, but now, instead of participating in one of her grandmother's schemes, Mary Alice has one of her own going.
She invites Royce over because she's interested in him, and she's not going to just sit back and let Carleen determine what she does about it. This Mary Alice is a far cry from the Mary Alice at the beginning of the story.
When her train first pulls into the station, Mary Alice says, "Oh, didn't I feel sorry for myself" (1.1). As she looks around the town, she tells us, "The thought of winter—Christmas—here chilled my heart" (1.43). And later, as she endures her first day of school, she finds fault with everything from the principal who also serves as janitor to the mixing of school subjects and students of different years in one room with one teacher. "I sighed all day," she says to express her exasperation (1.83).
Throughout all of this initial adversity, Mary Alice views herself as a victim, and at the end of the day she's feeling pretty hopeless: "I just sat there without a sigh left in me" (1.140).
Yet by the time Mary Alice encounters Royce, she's stopped thinking of life as something she has no control over, and she no longer lets other people, like Carleen, dictate the terms of engagement. Instead, she's taken a lesson or two from her grandmother and begun to take ownership of her life and its direction.
And part of taking control is taking on new responsibilities.
As Mary Alice grows older in the course of the novel, she also matures emotionally. At the beginning, she expects her grandmother to take care of her—just like she did when Mary Alice and her brother were little kids, and indeed, it's Grandma Dowdel who deals with Mildred the Bully. But as Mary Alice matures, the tables are turned.
When the tornado siren goes off at school, Mary Alice is unable to think about getting herself to safety without checking on her grandmother. While the other students file into the storm cellar, she sprints home to Grandma Dowdel's, which causes her grandmother to question the wisdom of the school sending students home.
Mary Alice explains:
"I escaped. I wanted to…come home."
She could read minds, even in the dark. She knew I'd wanted to make sure she was all right. (7.18-19)
And at the end of the book, Mary Alice isn't so pleased when she learns that her parents have found a bigger apartment. Back in August she would have been thrilled, but now she's torn. She feels like she should stay here to look after her grandmother:
"Grandma, I don't want to go back to Chicago. I want to stay here with you."
I wanted to explain to Grandma how she needed me here. I'd fuss about her if I wasn't here to see how she was. (7.94, 7.96)
Mary Alice's individual needs are no longer her primary motivator, and that's an indication that she's successfully made the transition from child to adult—from young girl to young woman.
One other important aspect of Mary Alice's growth is her view of herself as a young female growing up in a time period with a lot of gender disparity. In the first pages of the book, we find her wishing she was "two years older and a boy" (P.7). Over the next year, she learns a thing or two from her grandmother about being her own person. She doesn't let the fact that she's a girl hold her back; she watches Grandma Dowdel and sees that she can do just about anything she sets her mind to.
When Grandma Dowdel goes on her little adventures—whether it's to steal pecans or trap some foxes—Mary Alice willingly goes along and isn't frightened by the prospect of walking away from town in the middle of a winter's night:
Slipping the pistol in her pocket, she marched us both out the door, into the night.
We trod the icy ridges of the road, and the town fell back behind us. A cold, cloudless moon glared on white fields. I walked in Grandma's shadow, hearing the basket thump her back and the walnut hulls dance to her step. (4.42-43)
And even with the Royce McNabb situation, Mary Alice isn't pining away and dependent on a man. When they don't grow much closer over the course of the school year, she shrugs her shoulders instead of despairing:
And I didn't mind too much about Royce. He was friendly enough, but either he was keeping his distance, or I was keeping mine. We'd both been strangers in their midst here, but was that enough? I guessed not and didn't mind too much. Really, not at all, hardly. (6.162)
Mary Alice's laid back attitude and her preoccupation with her own life—like her burgeoning interest in journalism, and her worries about her grandmother—enable them to stay friends without getting romantic. And strangely enough, that's what allows them to turn their high school crush into a long-term relationship…eventually leading to wedding bells.