Study Guide

A Year Down Yonder Family

By Richard Peck

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Chapter 4

After we got home that night, Grandma showed me another ticket. It was a round-trip to Chicago for me, so I could go with Joey to have some Christmas with Mother and Dad. It must have cost Grandma her last skin. First, though, we'd keep Christmas right here around the spindly tree in the warm front room. Just the three of us, like the old summer visits. (4.120)

What a cozy Christmas tableau. Mary Alice, Joey, and Grandma Dowdel settle down for a charming Christmas that reminds them of the summer visits they had as kids. Families and nostalgia go together like cake and ice cream.

But there was one more miracle. I looked up at the tall man behind Grandma, and it was Joey.

Taller and leaner and handsomer. But Joey—changed and the same. And so I was looking my Christmas in the face. I hugged the wind out of him, tangled him in my sheets, nicked his chin with my halo. (4.113-114)

Mary Alice might be a teenager who gets easily embarrassed by her grandmother's strange antics, but she's not too cool to greet her brother when he shows up unexpectedly. His arrival is a Christmas miracle! Plus it shows that for Mary Alice, family is more important than any gift could be.

Chapter 5

Mrs. Wilcox made a beeline across the room. "You's my long-lost sister!" She flung out her arms to Mrs. Weidenbach, who flinched. Punch went everywhere, and horror and defeat were written in her face. (5.146)

Oh, dear. All this time, Mrs. Weidenbach was so proud of her family background, and how she was supposedly descended from the Pilgrims. But instead, she learns that she was a Burdick and is related to Mrs. Effie Wilcox, of all people. It's not shocking that she spills her punch at that revelation.

Chapter 7

I felt a paw on my knee as Bootsie stepped from Grandma's lap to mine. Grandma gave up and uncovered April's little green eyes blinking up at us. "Grandma, you saved them."

She shrugged that off. "I happened to be down in the cobhouse when the sirens went."

That was a whopper. We both knew it. (7.22-24)

Grandma Dowdel always acts tough, but she does care about Mary Alice—and even extends that care to Bootsie and her kitten, April. They've built a little family together in this small town, and she's not going to let them be blown away by a tornado.

"No, I think your grandma's a real interesting person," he said, and our hands brushed. "Everybody—"

"Royce, we're lucky she's not here on this hayframe with us. You must have noticed she rarely misses a party. But let's leave her out of this if we can. The moon's out, and Carleen's in a snit because we're sitting together. Let's just enjoy ourselves and have a hayride." (7.83-84)

Mary Alice is even more charmed by handsome Royce when he remarks that he likes her grandmother—despite all her weird quirks and scary shotgun-wielding behavior. That's when she knows he's a keeper; she can rest assured that he'll be comfortable around the Dowdel family.

Spring didn't come to Chicago like this. I went around with a lump in my throat I couldn't account for. Then a letter came from Mother with a postscript from Dad.

We'd written back and forth all year, though of course I didn't tell them everything. Mother always tucked in a stamp for me to write back. (7.3-4)

Mary Alice misses her parents, of course, and wants to see them again. But at the same time, going home to Chicago will mean leaving the home she's made with her grandmother—and that isn't a welcome thought, either.

Grandma Dowdel

She could look at me again now, though her eyes were pink and glistening. "You take the kitten. I'll keep the cat," she said. "You go on home to your folks. It'll be all right. I don't lock my doors." (7.106)

Despite the fact that Grandma Dowdel likes having Mary Alice around (after all, she's in that big old house all by herself), she still sends her granddaughter home to her parents and brother. That's where she really belongs. Sometimes—okay, lots of times—family involves sacrifice.

Chapter 8
Grandma Dowdel

When he asked who gave the bride away in marriage, Grandma said, "That'd be me."

She handed me over. Then she looked aside, out the bay window, blinking at the brightness of the day. I know because I looked back for one more glimpse of her. Then I married Royce McNabb. (8.7-8)

Mary Alice's father may not be there to give her away, but that doesn't mean she's entirely without family for her wedding. Her grandmother steps in to take on the very symbolic task of giving her away. Do you think Mary Alice would have made a different choice if her father had been there?

In this busy day I hadn't had time to be homesick. But I thought about my brother, Joey. Always before, he'd come down here to Grandma's with me, and stuck up for me. Now he was out west, planting trees, living in a tent. I thought about Joey, and Grandma was thinking about him too. I could tell. (1.129)

It's hard for Mary Alice to be at Grandma Dowdel's house all by herself—especially when she's never visited without her brother, Joey. Mary Alice finds herself more homesick than ever when she considers how her family is spread all over the country now.

Then just above the sighing wind she said, "The trenches are all filled in, but the boys are still dying."

Then I could read her thoughts and I knew what this day meant. Mrs. Abernathy's son could have been my dad. (3.99-100)

Grandma Dowdel isn't just helping out Mrs. Abernathy because she wants to be a good neighbor; in some ways, she's helping Mrs. Abernathy because she knows her son could have been damaged from the war, too. She was just lucky.

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