Saturday, July 19, 2008

41. A Year Down Yonder
42. A Long Way From Chicago

by Richard Peck

I listened to the audiobook of A Year Down Yonder for The Newbery Project (it’s the 2001 winner), and was laughing so hard I was inspired to read Richard Peck’s prequel, A Long Way from Chicago as well.

A Year Down Yonder gives a wonderful view of small-town life during the 1937-8 recession following the Great Depression. Mary Alice is 15 and must spend an entire school year with her grandmother in rural Illinois, as her parents are out of work and must move to a tiny apartment in Chicago. It’s an uplifting story, one that doesn’t deny the hardships of the time, but doesn’t dwell on them either.

Peck said (in an interview in The Reading Teacher for December 2001/January 2002) he got the stories in the book from “extended family, country cousins, those living on their ancestral acres” during a Thanksgiving visit to his hometown of Decatur, Illinois, not far from the town of Cerro Gordo where his real-life grandmother lived, and where both stories are set, “a town...cut in two by the tracks of the Wabash Railroad where people stood in their yards to watch the Wabash Cannonball go through” (Newbery acceptance speech).

American actress Lois Smith narrated the audiobook. She did a marvelous job creating unique voices for Grandma Dowdel and other interesting characters such as Wilhelmina Weidenbach, Mildred Burdick, Miss Butler, Effie Wilcox, and Aunt Mae Griswold. I only had a couple of complaints. One was her voicing of Mary Alice – it sounded too whiny and too immature for a 15-year-old.

The other complaint was the way she pronounced pecan. Having grown up in Texas, (it’s our state tree), with native pecans all along the Brazos river valley where I now live and orchards all along the nearby Colorado River, most everyone here pronounces it “puh-kahn,” with a little more accent on the second syllable than the first. Smith pronounced it as “pee-can,” with almost equal accent on both syllables. I’ve also heard “pee-CAN” and “pi-KAHN” (heavy accent on second syllable in both cases) and even “pee-kahn,” and dictionaries give a variety of pronunciations, so all are right. Since she was voicing rural residents of southern Illinois, perhaps her pronunciation is correct for that part of the country. Nevertheless, it was grating to my ears.

A Long Way from Chicago, a 1999 Newbery Honor Book, was just as much fun. This book also stars Grandma Dowdel as well as a younger Mary Alice, but is narrated by her older brother Joey. It is “a novel in stories” of humorous happenings during the week-long visits the two children made to their grandmother from their home in Chicago, during the Depression years of 1929 through 1935. However, it’s not necessary to read it before A Year Down Yonder.

I was born in the Chicago suburb where my dad grew up and my grandparents lived for many years, and many aunts, uncles, and cousins still live in that area. Some of my ancestors were from Springfield – they owned a haberdashery and sold a hat to Abraham Lincoln, so the story where Grandma Dowdel tries to pass off a stovepipe hat from her attic as his rang true to me.

In both books, I found Grandma Dowdel to be the most interesting character. In his Newbery acceptance speech, Peck described Grandma Dowdel as “the American tall tale in a Lane Bryant dress. There’s more than a bit of Paul Bunyan about her, and a touch of the Native American trickster tradition; she may just be Kokopelli without the flute.”

In The Reading Teacher, he said she “is the great American tradition I came from. She is all of my great aunts, and while she is not much like my grandmother—except physically—all were imposing women...It was a matriarchy, and Grandma Dowdel represents that. Notice she is often cooking? To her, that is not a subservient role, that is feeding the world....Their kitchens were their temples.” “Joey expresses his awe at the power of a mighty grandmother and, perhaps, of all women,” Peck says in the Newbery acceptance speech. “Mary Alice tells of finding in an unexpected place the role model for the rest of her life.”

I feel either book could have been set in just about any rural small town in the country during 1929-1937. Peck is meticulous on his research for his historical fiction; he noted in The Reading Teacher interview that, for A Year Down Yonder: “I read every issue of Time magazine in 1937…I made a timeline for the entire year...For example, the most famous woman in America vanished without a trace that summer...so without distracting, I had to say something about it. It’s in half a line, but it’s there because that happened in 1937.” I think the humor in the books would be enjoyed by both boys and girls about age 9 and up (reading level is about grade 4.5-5.0).

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