Study Guide

A Year Down Yonder Themes

By Richard Peck

  • Family

    In A Year Down Yonder, Mary Alice has to leave one branch of her family (her mom, dad, and brother) to live with another (Grandma Dowdel). Even though she's still with family, the transition isn't exactly smooth, and Mary Alice finds herself feeling terribly alone…at first.

    During her year with Grandma Dowdel, Mary Alice comes to better understand and care for her larger-than-life grandmother, and in the end, Grandma Dowdel is just as important and close to Mary Alice as her immediate family. In fact, they're so close that Grandma Dowdel's house feels like the right place to get married, and Grandma Dowdel feels like the perfect person to give Mary Alice away.

    Questions About Family

    1. Why does Mary Alice miss her brother so much when she's staying with Grandma?
    2. Does Mary Alice's view of Grandma Dowdel change over the course of the year? How so? And why?
    3. Why does Mary Alice have Grandma Dowdel give her away instead of her parents? If her parents had been able to attend the wedding, do you think she would have made a different choice? Explain.
    4. What is a traditional family structure? Is there such a thing? In what ways do Mary Alice and her grandmother represent a traditional family structure? In what ways are they non-traditional? For the 1930s? For today?

    Chew on This

    If Joey had come along with Mary Alice to spend the year at Grandma Dowdel's, Mary Alice never would have become so close to her grandmother—or grown up so much.

    If Mary Alice had fit in better at school, she would have spent more time with her peers and her relationship with her grandmother wouldn't have been as important to her.

  • The Home

    When Mary Alice first arrives at Grandma Dowdel's house in A Year Down Yonder, she feels far away from her Chicago roots and homesick. She doesn't feel like she'll ever settle in—even the house feels too quiet and dark for comfort at night, and her cat Bootsie strikes out independently instead of sticking close to Mary Alice. Traitor.

    But over the course of the year, Mary Alice becomes more comfortable in Grandma Dowdel's house, and even starts to think of it as home. In fact, by the end of the book, that's where she chooses to have her wedding…even though Chicago would be more convenient.

    Questions About The Home

    1. Why does Mary Alice get married at Grandma Dowdel's house instead of in Chicago?
    2. How does Mary Alice feel about her bedroom when she first arrives at Grandma Dowdel's house?
    3. Why isn't Mary Alice excited when her parents finally are able to move into a bigger apartment?

    Chew on This

    Despite her initial misgivings about going to live with Grandma Dowdel, Mary Alice comes to consider that small town as her real "home."

    Mary Alice is a "city girl" at heart, and home for her will always be in Chicago.

  • Competition

    One trait that Mary Alice shares with her grandmother in A Year Down Yonder is that they're both pretty competitive ladies. Grandma Dowdel never lets anyone get the best of her—even the rich folks like Mr. and Mrs. Weidenbach. She always puts them in their place, and makes them pay more than everyone else (even if it makes them huff and puff).

    And Mary Alice is cut from the same cloth. She isn't intimidated by the other girls in her class, even when they shun her. In fact, she goes out of her way to mess with Carleen, the class snob. And when she hears that Carleen is interested in Royce McNabb, Mary Alice isn't deterred. Instead, she vows to get to him first.

    Questions About Competition

    1. Why does Grandma Dowdel always give the Weidenbachs a hard time?
    2. Why is Mary Alice worried that Grandma will participate in the turkey shoot?
    3. What is Mary Alice's reaction when Carleen claims Royce McNabb?

    Chew on This

    If Carleen Lovejoy hadn't laid claim to Royce McNabb, Mary Alice may never have pursued him.

    Grandma Dowdel always comes out on top in negotiations and competitions because she's an excellent student of human nature.

  • Love

    Beyond the straightforward romance that blossoms between Mary Alice and Royce, A Year Down Yonder is peppered throughout with stories of love. No, it's not directly expressed by any of the characters. In fact, we don't think the word "love" even appears in this text—at least not in the context of one character expressing love for another in words.

    And yet...people in this story do so many things that indicate there's a lot of love floating around. Everything that makes Mary Alice the happiest comes in the form of her loved ones—whether it's her brother Joey visiting for Christmas or getting married to Royce McNabb in the final pages. Whether or not the people in Grandma Dowdel's small town want to admit it, they've got a whole lotta love.

    Questions About Love

    1. Is there any foreshadowing that Royce and Mary Alice will wind up together in the end?
    2. Grandma Dowdel isn't one for putting her feelings into words. How does she show that she loves her grandchildren? What about her friends and neighbors?
    3. Love often involves sacrifice in the form of putting someone else's needs first. What sacrifices do people make for love in A Year Down Yonder?

    Chew on This

    Although Grandma Dowdel never utters the words, "I love you," she shows her love for Mary Alice in many different ways.

    Carleen Lovejoy, the one character with the word "love" built right into her name is, in fact, the least loving character in the book.

  • Sacrifice

    When A Year Down Yonder opens, Mary Alice is making the sacrifice of leaving her beloved Chicago and going to stay with her grandmother because her family is too poor to afford an apartment with two rooms. Even though she's a teenager and bristling at the injustice of it all, she's not going to make her parents feel bad for it because she loves them.

    And in her year with Grandma Dowdel, she learns that it's not always about her. In truth, there are many sacrifices she's willing to make in order to care for the ones she loves—because that's what her grandmother demonstrates again and again.

    Questions About Sacrifice

    1. Why doesn't Grandma Dowdel buy herself a ticket to Chicago for Christmas too?
    2. Does Mary Alice actually want to stay on with her grandmother when her parents get a bigger apartment? Why or why not?
    3. Why does Grandma Dowdel spend so many winter nights going out and trapping foxes? Why does Mary Alice insist on going with her?

    Chew on This

    Of all the characters in the book, Grandma Dowdel sacrifices the most for the good of others.

    Mary Alice doesn't actually want to stay in Grandma Dowdel's little town at the end; she's only offering because she knows that someone should be there to take care of her grandmother in her old age.

  • Poverty

    In A Year Down Yonder, Mary Alice unflinchingly exposes readers to the harsh realities of the recession, and how it affects the people in her life. We know how hard up the Dowdel family is from the get go: the whole reason Mary Alice is going to live with Grandma for the year is because her parents can't afford a big enough apartment in Chicago anymore.

    On her way to the train station and upon arriving in Grandma Dowdel's town, Mary Alice sees a lot of hungry and desperate people all around her. But during her stay with Grandma D, Mary Alice learns—by her grandmother's example—that even when times are hard, there's a lot people can do to help each other get by.

    Questions About Poverty

    1. Why doesn't Mrs. Abernathy move her son to a veterans hospital?
    2. Why does Grandma bake so many pecan and pumpkin pies for the Halloween party?
    3. Does Arnold's job of painting a mural in the post office really matter? Why is the government paying him to do it?
    4. Do you think it makes sense that so many boys have been pulled out of school? How hard would it be to make that kind of decision as a parent? As a teenager?

    Chew on This

    The most impoverished characters in A Year Down Under are not the characters with the least money.

    In A Year Down Under, it's clear that the recession has hit the big cities just as hard as it has hit the smaller towns.

  • Women and Femininity

    The main characters in A Year Down Yonder are women to be reckoned with—Mary Alice Dowdel and her larger-than-life grandmother, Grandma Dowdel. Though the story takes place in the late 1930s and early 1940s, when gender roles and norms were pretty stringent, the Dowdel women don't let social expectations hold them down.

    Grandma Dowdel is constantly dressing up in her late husband's clothes and doing things like shooting guns and trapping foxes, even though most women in town are wearing skirts and hosting tea parties. And Mary Alice is determined to make something of herself without the need for a man. She ends up snagging a reporter gig in Chicago after she graduates. You go, girl!

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Why doesn't Grandma Dowdel seem to care about her appearance or dressing up?
    2. Would getting all dolled up and putting on make-up like Carleen make Mary Alice more attractive to Royce McNabb? Why or why not?
    3. How does Grandma Dowdel's idea of femininity and a woman's place impact Mary Alice as she grows up?

    Chew on This

    Through living with Grandma Dowdel, Mary Alice comes to see that being a woman isn't all about being ornamental—and that women can be just as strong (if not more so) than men.

    Mary Alice and Grandma Dowdel are able to have a huge impact on the people in their small not in spite of being women, but because of it.

  • Coming of Age

    Mary Alice Dowdel is fifteen years old when she goes to live with her Grandma Dowdel in A Year Down Yonder. In other words, she's primed for some serious teenage angst. Being in the middle of this rather special and tumultuous period of life definitely impacts how she handles the challenges that come her way.

    Over the course of the book, we get to see Mary Alice grow into a confident young woman as she cares for her grandmother, helps out her neighbors, and falls in love for the first time.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. How does Grandma Dowdel figure out that Mary Alice is interested in romance now?
    2. How does Mary Alice's view of her grandmother change throughout the course of the book?
    3. What is the biggest change in Mary Alice from the beginning of the book to the end?
    4. What event indicates that Mary Alice has made the transition from child to adult?

    Chew on This

    The adversity Mary Alice faces in her grandmother's town plays a big role in her transition to adulthood.

    When Mary Alice first meets Royce McNabb, neither of them are prepared to pursue a real relationship.

  • Principles

    Despite the fact that she can sometimes bend the rules to suit her own way, Grandma Dowdel in A Year Down Yonder is a woman who sticks to her moral code and principles. She may not be a terribly religious or outspoken woman when it comes to her good deeds, but she's always finding ways to help people in need.

    She rescues Old Man Nyquist from his house even though he's an absolute terror to be around, and ungrateful to boot. And she even stays up to make pies for the Halloween party because she knows there will be lots of hungry folks there.

    Whether it involves shaming wealthy people into helping support the Abernathys, or pouring glue on hooligans to teach them a lesson, Grandma Dowdel has firm principles, and she sticks to them.

    Questions About Principles

    1. Why does Grandma Dowdel help Old Man Nyquist even when he's the meanest to her?
    2. Is Grandma Dowdel doing the wrong thing in stealing pecans and pumpkins? How does she justify taking them without asking? Do you think she's in the right? Why or why not?
    3. Why doesn't Grandma Dowdel let Mary Alice stay with her after the year ends?

    Chew on This

    Grandma Dowdel clearly believes that when it comes to morality, the ends justify the means. Although Grandma Dowdel's schemes tend to come out okay in the end, her approach to solving problems is ultimately unethical.

  • Foreignness and "The Other"

    When Mary Alice Dowdel comes to live with her grandmother in A Year Down Yonder, she's an outsider in this small town. The other kids at school consider her a "Chicago girl," and snub her because they think she's a city slicker and full of herself—even though she's there because her parents are too poor to keep an apartment.

    But there's one good thing that comes from being cast into a new environment. Mary Alice grows stronger and more confident as she's pushed outside of her comfort zone. And on top of that, she meets another outsider—a cute boy named Royce McNabb—who ends up being her sweetheart for life.

    Questions About Foreignness and "The Other"

    1. Why do the other girls exclude Mary Alice when she joins their class?
    2. How does being an outsider work to Mary Alice's advantage?
    3. Does Mary Alice still consider herself an outsider in her grandmother's town by the end of the school year?
    4. Why do the pearl clutchers want to run Arnold Green out of town?

    Chew on This

    Every character considered an outsider by the townies in A Year Down Yonder winds up benefitting from that outsider status.

    Although Mary Alice starts out feeling like she'll never be accepted into this small town, by the end, she's feels more at home in Grandma Dowdel's town than she ever did in Chicago.