It is 1937 and Mary Alice has been sent down to southern Illinois to live with Grandma Dowdel, while her parents try to survive the Great Depression in Chicago. Mary Alice has never traveled by train alone; her brother Joe was with her every summer that she spent with Grandma; now he is in the Civilian Conservation Corps in California. With her radio, her cat Bootsie, and her trunk, Mary Alice meets Grandma on the station platform. There are no hugs; Grandma is not the hugging type.
If you read A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck, you know all about Grandma. Most of the neighbors are a bit afraid of her, as she is rather large, rarely smiles, and has been known to carry an antique rifle when she has a mind she needs it. She does what she needs to do to get by and is a bit of a Robin Hood. She slips under the barbed wire of the Piatt County Rod and Gun Club to catch catfish to provide a good meal for old Aunt Puss. When the bank tries to foreclose on Mrs. Wilcox’s house, she finds a way to leverage her friend’s antiques at a rummage sale with the banker’s wife. Grandma is clever and mischievous.
In A Year Down Yonder, Mary Alice loses a lot of sleep, as she and Grandma are often out in the dead of night catching privy tippers and gathering ingredients for pumpkin pies. Her math grades suffer, but she learns many valuable lessons otherwise. Being a city girl and being related to Grandma make finding friends at school harder, but she gets to play Mary in the Christmas play and even studies with the star basketball player. Grandma is always there to solve any problem.
I enjoyed the humor and the historical detail of both of these books. Almost every library has them, as they should. They may be aimed at young readers, but adults can enjoy them, too.
Peck, Richard. A Long Way from Chicago. New York: Puffin Books, 1998. ISBN 0141311827
Peck, Richard. A Year Down Yonder. New York: Puffin Books, 2002. ISBN 0142300705