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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.