Study Guide

A Year Down Yonder Women and Femininity

By Richard Peck

Women and Femininity

Prologue

My brother Joey—Joe—had been taken on by the Civilian Conservation Corps to plant trees out west. That left me, Mary Alice. I wished I was two years older and a boy. I wished I was Joey. (P.8)

Poor Mary Alice feels slighted because she's a girl, and therefore can't go off to serve in the Civilian Conservation Corps like all the young men who are out of jobs. She has to sit pretty and wait for the recession to end. Do these sorts of circumstances still exist, or today would Mary Alice be able to pursue all of the same options as a same-aged boy?

Chapter 1

You couldn't call her a welcoming woman, and there wasn't a hug in her. She didn't put out her arms, so I had nothing to run into.

Nobody had told Grandma that skirts were shorter this year. Her skirttails brushed her shoes. I recognized the dress. It was the one she put on in hot weather to walk uptown in. (1.7-1.8)

Grandma Dowdel isn't exactly the most feminine woman in the world. She's not big on outward affection, and she usually wears out-of-date dresses or her dead husband's clothes—not exactly a runway look.

Chapter 2

Grandma lunged. As big as the cobhouse doorway, she surged through it. Moonlight struck her snow-white hair, and she looked eight feet tall. She'd have given a coroner a coronary. As the fallen boy raised his dazed head, she turned the pan of glue over on it. The glue was cool now and would set later. (2.29)

You don't want to mess with Grandma Dowdel. She may be an old lady in outdated clothes, but she's a force to be reckoned with if you intend on messing with her privy. She shows those teenage hooligans who's boss when they show up on Halloween.

Chapter 3
Grandma Dowdel

Grandma looked closer. "Looky there," she said. "That's Kate Smith. Do you suppose that's a good picture of her? I hadn't any idea she was such a big, full-figured woman."

Kate Smith was a very big, very full-figured woman. She was as big as—Grandma. (3.104-105)

Grandma Dowdel doesn't have a Kardashian-approved body, but she's still comfortable with how she looks. Despite her confidence, she's still happy to see someone famous who looks like her and is a big, full-figured woman too.

Chapter 4

Underneath, she was wearing Grandpa's rubber chest-waders that were like rubber bib overalls…She was all in black rubber almost up to her chins.

Of all the figures she ever cut, this one took the cake. I often wondered what she'd buried Grandpa Dowdel in. She seemed to wear every stitch he'd owned. (4.15-16)

Grandma Dowdel obviously isn't the kind of woman who worries about how she looks all the time. She's quite pragmatic, and isn't above going out in all of her dead husband's hunting clothes if it means that she'll stay warm and dry.

Her halo hovered high over her head, supported from behind. She was made up for the New York stage. She'd shaved off her eyebrows and drawn on new ones. Her cheeks were pinker than nature. Her lips were a deep red Cupid's bow, with fingernails to match. She was a natural blonde, and that was the only natural thing about her. (4.92)

Unlike Grandma Dowdel, Carleen Lovejoy is the kind of girl who is all about dressing up and putting on make-up to flaunt her femininity. She definitely takes it to the next level at the nativity play, even though she's got a minor role.

Christmas was in the air, and Miss Butler had us girls making gifts in Home Ec. class. We ought to have been learning invisible mending and turning hems to make our clothes last. But Miss Butler decreed hot pads for our loved ones, made by crocheting used bottle caps into circular patterns. (4.1)

Even though it's rather sexist to separate the boys and girls into agriculture and home economics classes purely based on gender, Mary Alice doesn't necessarily object to the nature of the work she's being asked to do. She just wishes it was more practical. Now that's a Dowdel woman, through and through.

Chapter 5

She was…posing. Her snow-white hair waved down from a neat center parting and drew back in a bun so tight, no hair escaped. Pearls hung in her ears. There were traces of Coty powder in the laps below her chins.

I'd never seen her dress. It must have been from the Lane Bryant catalogue. (5.109-110)

What a surprise! Mary Alice can hardly believe her eyes when Grandma Dowdel comes downstairs in a fancy outfit and with her hair and make-up done. It's something that she wants to remember forever, and it goes to show that Grandma Dowdel isn't against dressing up—she just reserves her fancy clothes for the right occasions.

Chapter 6

Royce sat with his legs apart, elbows in knees. Actually, he sat like Grandma did. Then he said, "We have something in common, you and me."
"We do?" Oh, how close to simpering I was. Another minute and you wouldn't know me from Carleen. (6.89-90)

Mary Alice is a little surprised at just how flustered being around Royce makes her. These feelings are totally new to her, and while she's excited, she's also slightly petrified. She wants to be feminine, like Carleen, but she doesn't want to be superficial. Like Carleen. Romance can be pretty confusing.

We used rain-barrel water and her homemade lye soap. I can still feel her knuckles in my scalp, and that lye soap took forever to rinse out. I hadn't had a finger wave since last summer. Grandma had been cutting my hair. (6.16)

Mary Alice definitely isn't as well-dressed or made up as Carleen Lovejoy, especially with the conditions she and Grandma are living in. They don't have the money to go get their hair done professionally (although Grandma probably never cared to).