Study Guide

A Year Down Yonder Poverty

By Richard Peck

Poverty

Prologue

Mother was seeing me off at Dearborn Station in Chicago. We'd come in a taxicab because of my trunk. But Mother would ride back home on the El. There wasn't much more than a nickel in her purse, and only a sandwich for the train in mine. My ticket had pretty well cleaned us out. (P.1)

Sending Mary Alice off to her grandmother's house costs money—and her parents can barely afford the ticket, let alone money for a drink or lunch. Even taking the taxicab there is a huge extravagance.

Chapter 1

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)

There are already few shops and stores left in the tiny downtown area, and those that remain are hurting for business. It looks like small town life at Grandma Dowdel's is going to be pretty depressing with this whole recession going on.

They'd fired the janitor when times got hard. August—Mr. Fluke—was the principal, which made him the coach too. And he taught shop to the boys. And swept up. (1.38)

Everyone is spread thin financially, which is why Mr. Fluke—the school principal—has taken on all sorts of odd jobs. He has to clean up the school, teach shop, and coach the basketball team. What do you suppose the former janitor is doing for work now?

Chapter 2
Grandma Dowdel

I was shocked at how the grown-ups pushed in first. But then here came Ina-Rae Gage, who always looked so wan and drawn that I cut her an extra-wide slice of pecan.

When she was past, Grandma muttered to me, "That's the skinniest girl that ever I saw. She could rest in the shade of a clothesline." (2.97-98)

Times must be tough if the grown-ups are pushing past the kids for food. Poor Ina-Rae looks so starved that Mary Alice decides to give her more pie than all the other folks in line. She could use some fattening up—and pie's just what the doctor ordered.

Chapter 6

Grandma didn't throw him out and send him on his way. Not at two dollars and fifty cents a day. Arnold Green brought his easel down from the attic that same Sunday afternoon. Something Grandma said left him with the impression that the snake was gone for good. Still, he nailed the trapdoor shut and painted in his bedroom. (6.128)

Everyone's watching their expenses, and so Grandma certainly cannot afford to throw out Arnold Green. Not that we get the impression she really wants to. Sure, she makes a rule that naked ladies are not to be painted in her attic, but really, she seems more entertained than scandalized. Still, at $2.50 a day, a little scandal might be worth enduring.

She liked to boil her laundry in a big pot over an open fire in the yard. She didn't have a wringer, so we wrung out the sheets by hand. It was like tug-of-war once she dug her heels in. By the time we hung them on the line, they were half dry and we were wet through. (6.15)

The tough times means that Grandma and Mary Alice have to do their laundry by hand out in the yard, instead of using newfangled contraptions like a wringer. And they certainly couldn't even imagine how easy modern washers and dryers make washing the sheets. (Hm. That might be a good thing to remember the next time we complain about having to do our own laundry…)

Miss Butler

"Oh my," murmured Miss Butler, "how…much."

But Arnold Green fell to it. He didn't feed this well up at The Coffee Pot Cafe, and he was a starving artist. (6.150-151)

Grandma knows how to put her guests in a good mood and make them receptive to falling in love—she feeds them. All the food they can handle. This definitely lifts their spirits when they've been hungry for so long, and when Arnold Green's stomach is full, he finally meets Miss Butler's eyes across the table. And that's all it takes to launch their romance.

Chapter 7

Beyond the Deere implement shed we saw Mrs. Effie Wilcox's house still standing, though her front gate hung by a hinge.

But then maybe it always had. I didn't get over on this side of the tracks very often. (7.48-49)

There are plenty of dilapidated old houses in Grandma's town, and Effie Wilcox definitely does not have a lot of money. Mary Alice can't even tell if her gate was damaged by the tornado or just has always been like this.

Chapter 8

Grandma baked the wedding cake. Sugar was hard to come by, though not for her. She made me a nosegay bouquet to carry—lilies of the valley and Queen Anne's lace from her yard, poked through a paper doily. She wore her floral print with the net collar, the dress she'd worn years ago to the county fair. (8.6)

Despite the tough times, Grandma Dowdel manages to make things special for her granddaughter's wedding day. She finds sugar for a proper cake, and even makes her a nice little bouquet.

I'd saved up my ration card for new shoes and a suit from the basement store at Marshall Field. Though I wore a hat and gloves, I was married bare-legged because you couldn't get nylons by then, for love or money. (8.4)

The war means that finding nice new clothes—much less a wedding dress—is next to impossible. But Mary Alice doesn't care. She just gets the best that she can with her ration cards, and gets ready for her wedding day.