A Long Way From Chicago
We present to you a blast from America’s past in this engaging, witty novel by one of our nation’s best authors, Richard Peck. Holly first came across the novel without reading the prequel, and recommended it to Cari (after laughing and laughing and calling her on the phone saying, “You’ve got to read this.”) as a possible future double scoop. Before posting this review, we both read A Long Way From Chicago- which is great, but A Year Down Yonder won the nomination, hands down. It’s hilarious, and our review can’t compare in laugh factor, but we tried.
A Year Down Yonder opens with Mary Alice traveling by train to spend a year with Grandma Dowdel in the country. Her parents are struggling with Depression era employment issues, so Mary Alice must do her part by enduring a year in the backwards town where Grandma Dowdel reigns supreme.
What did you like about A Year Down Yonder?
Cari: It reminded me of our family in some ways. I don’t think it was so unusual for families in cities to send kids to the country if they had extended family members there. I know Grandma O spent part of her childhood on a family farm in Idaho and part of that was so that her family could get food and her dad could get work.
Holly: Grandma Dowdel just cracks me up. I think this book should be made into a movie, although they’d have to make the snake scene decent for film. Grandma Dowdel’s quotes and thoughts would be things that people would quote for years just like Princess Bride. That’s how classic it would be.
What was unusual about the book?
Cari: I’ve read 3 of Peck’s books and noticed that his bullies are often girls (not saying they can’t be, but it’s not the stereotype). I noticed that the first day Mary Alice gets there she has to go straight from the train to school and the bully is a girl- Mildred Burdick, who immediately pounces on the new kid in town. Grandma is a bully wonder.
Holly: No kidding! The number of fascinating characters is somewhat unusual. Usually, a book has a few fascinating characters and the rest are just there for support – but this book had a real corner on the market of interesting people.
What was your favorite part?
Holly: There were so many hilarious parts, it’s really hard to choose.
Cari: I’d start with the Halloween chapter. My favorite part in A Year Down Yonder is knocking over privies. Grandma stakes out the privie, and gets the guy and his pocket knife. Later at the town Halloween party she serves him pie with his own knife.
Holly: I really loved the Halloween chapter too- my favorite line from Grandma Dowdel is:
“To Grandma, Halloween wasn’t so much trick-or-treat as it was vittles and vengeance. Though she’d have called it justice.”
But, since you picked that one, I’ll have to vote for the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution).
Cari: How Grandma sets up the afternoon tea for the DAR with the raspberry tarts?
Holly: You mean cherry.
Cari: I thought they were raspberry.
Holly: No, they were cherry because it was George Washington’s birthday and their annual DAR celebration.
Cari: Right. So, the DAR is based on who your ancestors are. When Grandma Dowdel sets up to reveal that one of the women is adopted, it throws the cherry tarts in the face of the uppity DAR women of their small town, who enjoy being social superiors due to their lineage and direct descent from revolutionary war heroes. Not only that she gets them drunk.
Holly: Yep. With one part strawberry juice and two parts bourbon.
Cari: I also found the Christmas pageant hilarious- and kind of sad too. You die laughing and yet you get that the people were struggling, even the bully. Grandma Dowdel really does care about people.
Holly: I really enjoyed that scene. The book is so realistic that you feel like you’re there. So, we obviously have a lot of favorite parts.
Who did Grandma Dowdel bring to mind?
Cari: She reminds me of Grandpa B a little bit.
Holly: Because he always had a million projects up his sleeve.
Cari: Okay, so here’s one of my favorite stories –
The Skunk Story: When Grandpa B was 14 0r 15, on his way to school he noticed that there were a bunch of skunks living under a culvert. That night there was supposed to be a Halloween party. Rather than go to the party he decided to trap the skunks because he could sell the furs. He took some barbed wire and made a bit and brace, stuck the wire in the culvert and started cranking. He put it in the hole and would catch them by their fur and pull them out one at a time. He had brought an heirloom 22 rifle with him and killed about three of them with it and then ran out of shells so he killed the rest with rocks (yikes!). He tied the skunks to the barbed wire and hooked them to the saddle horn and rode his pony home. Later he put them out by the cow shed and skinned them, being careful not to open the scent sack. When the local fur trader came by he made 9 dollars off of his work, which is about $131.00 today. He was a bit smelly after that (as you can imagine) even though he told me he never got directly sprayed. He hung his clothes in the barn the whole winter and was able to wear them several months later.
Holly: Now that sounds like Grandma Dowdel. Except that she would have gone after the Halloween party- she wouldn’t miss a party for anything!
Cari: I wish Grandma Dowdel or Grandpa B would come take care of the gopher that’s been eating my lavender plants, rose bush and bulbs.
Hollly: I bet you do. It’s interesting how the book is about Mary Alice and her year there, but you almost come away knowing more about Grandma Dowdel.
Cair: At the same time I think Mary Alice kind of turns into Grandma.
Holly: Yeah, she sure had some tricks up her sleeve, and she learned from the best! Okay, one more favorite quote about Grandma Dowdel:
“She knew me through and through. She had eyes in the back of her heart.”
Did the town remind you of someplace?
Holly: The small town reminded me of Montepeliar, Idaho and what it’s like to live in a small town where everyone knows your business.
Cari: Even when you try to keep it nobody’s business.
Holly: As I read this book, I kept thinking, “If you changed the name of the town to Montepeliar or Bern, Idaho and swapped Grandma Dowdel for some of our relatives (you’d have to combine them all into one character) then you’d almost think this book was about our family.
And now for a trip down memory lane . . .
in honor of Grandma Dowdel, here is one of the pranks we tried to pull. Tried is the key word:
Background: As kids, we spent a lot of time in Pocatello, Idaho roaming the gullies filled with scrubby junipers and weeds. But, when neighborhood kids started moving in on our territory ( we know, it really was theirs more than ours because we only visited and they lived there, but we’d been going there since we were really young and weren’t used to sharing our gully).
Cari: I’m sick of these kids who come in here and strip the bark off the trees and ruin our forts! They aren’t treating the gully the way they should.
Holly: We should figure out a way to scare them off. Hmm. There’s nothing too scary around here that I can think of. We need something scary like a skull and crossbones to make them think pirates are here. That would scare them good.
Cari: Too bad we don’t have any bones around here.
Cousin A: Let’s go to my house to play, I’ll go ask my Mom.
Later at Cousins A’s house:
Cari: Do you guys ever play in the gully across the street?
Cousin C: Not much. Just sometimes. There’s cows there. Well, cow bones anyway.
Cari and Holly and brothers: Cow Bones?
Please pause for this light bulb moment. We honor the brilliance of all devious prank minds.
Cari: Hey, Brother #2! Go get some bones. You there! (talking to brother #3) go get a box or something to put them in.
Holly: Here’s a great one! It looks like a big leg bone- this will be perfect to scare those bullies away with!
Mom and Aunt B: Time to load up we’re heading back to Grandma’s. (side note: I wonder what they thought we were going to do with all those bones?)
Later, down in the gully.
Cari: Okay, I think we should set up a pile of bones here and write in the dirt, “Beware, we are watching you.”
Holly: Yeah, we could write, “Don’t ruin the gully, or the trees.” That might be easier
(okay, honestly what pirate would respect trees? Not only that, what pirate would try to protect them with the skull and cross bones?)
Cari: Maybe we should just scratch out “Stay Out!”
Holly: Hand me some bones, please! I will just set them up in a big ‘X’ and then these curved ones we can make look like a skull . . . there. That oughtta do it.
Cari: Let’s make two big Xs. Hey- everyone, did you hear that? What was that sound?
Holly: I heard something too.
Little cousins: Bug eyed, scared stiff, “Pirates! The gullies haunted! Run for your lives, Ahhhhhhhh! Grandma, Grandma! Mom! Mom!”
Holly: Um, I’m scared too.
Cari: Uh, yeah, this is pretty creepy. There’s something watching us. I can feel it in my bones.
Holly: You mean you can feel it in those bones over there. Maybe they’re haunted.
Cari: Let’s get out of here.
Holly: Yeah, see ya!
Cari: Wait, I get to go first!
Holly: It’s your turn to be brave. I was brave last time.
Both: Ahhhhhhhh!!!!!! Run for your life!!!!
Yeah, so we didn’t make the Grandma Dowdel cut, do you? What was the best prank you ever pulled?