A Year Down Yonder, by Richard Peck, won the Newbery in 2001. I had never heard of it before browsing the Newbery winners (so thank you again Alicia, for starting this), and that's a shame. I can't wait to introduce this book to my kids. Maybe read it aloud to them.
Anyway, I've been reading a lot of books lately that capture the essence of a place. It's one of the things I enjoy most when I read, but I don't always know how true-to-life depictions of far away places are. A Year Down Yonder struck so close to home for me, though, that I can tell you that Peck captures life in small-town and rural central Illinois perfectly.
The book takes place in 1937, when fifteen year old Mary Alice has to leave her parents (her father lost his job in the Depression, and they lose their Chicago apartment) to stay with her grandmother in downstate Illinois. Like A Gathering of Days, the book chronicles a year in a young girl's life. The language and tone of A Year Down Yonder are completely different from Joan Blos's book, though. Down Yonder is a much lighter-hearted book, with quirky and memorable characters, a few laugh-out-loud scenes, and some pithy country sayings that I haven't heard for years.
I grew up in a small town in northern Illinois (though not as small as the town Grandma Dowdel inhabits), and spent many weekends with my grandmother on a remaining piece of my great-grandmother's family farm. I was surprised how many memories Down Yonder brought back. In many ways, things weren't that different in 1970 than they were in 1937, I guess. My grandmother took me to the local burgoo festival, my other grandmother was a pillar of the local DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) group, and we hid from tornadoes in the basement several times during my childhood. In fact, the town nearest my great-grandmother's farm was devastated by a tornado a few years ago.
Anyway, each of these scenarios - the burgoo dinner, the class conflict embodied by the local DAR, and a tornado - form the basis for one of the interlinked stories that make up Peck's book. Several descriptive passages also rang true for me - my parents still have a huge snowball bush in their yard like Grandma Dowdel does. I clearly remember (and still often hear from my mother) the speed with which gossip spreads in a small town, and Peck is right on target when Mary Alice notes that "Anybody who thinks small towns are friendlier than big cities lives in a big city." And you should have heard me squeal out loud when Grandma Dowdel pulls out the pink silk pillow with the gold fringe that says "SOUVENIR OF STARVED ROCK". It was like someone I knew actually showed up in the book!
I think I would have loved this book even if it didn't push so many nostalgic buttons for me - Mary Alice and Grandma Dowdel are wonderful characters, and Peck's writing is just plain fun. Down Yonder is like Holes and The Higher Power of Lucky in this - it tackles some serious issues, but it's still very funny. Which I think is sometimes not appreciated as much as it should be.