Sunday, July 3, 2011
The Grandma Dowdel Trilogy
Richard Peck is one of my favorite authors of books for middle-school readers. He sets most of his stories in rural Illinois and Indiana in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His characters are of the sturdy midwestern stock variety. One of the best--and indeed best in all fiction--is Grandma Dowdel. She first appears in Richard Peck's Newbery honor A Long Way from Chicago and then his sequels, the Newbery winner A Year Down Yonder and A Season of Gifts. A Long Way from Chicago is narrated by her grandson Joey, who with his younger sister Mary Alice spends every summer between 1929 and 1935 with Grandma Dowdel. On first arriving in Grandma's town, Joey says "We could hardly see the town because of Grandma. She was so big, and the town was so small."
Grandma Dowdel is a large woman, but she also possesses a large, charitable heart, something she does not brag about. Nor is she your average woman with a heart of gold: She is industrious, thrifty, self-reliant and foxy, and not above deception, thievery and arm twisting to accomplish her good deeds, as when she wrings every cent out of the good citizens on Armistice Day selling burgoo to raise money for a seriously disabled veteran. In the words of Mrs. Sheets, leader of the Legion Auxiliary ladies, "Mrs. Dowdel, you're twice as bald-faced and brazen and yes, I have to say shameless as the rest of us girls put together....you outdo the most two-faced, two-fisted shortchanger, flimflam artist, and full-time extortionist anybody ever saw working this part of the country....God bless you for your good work."
Grandma Dowdel doesn't have much use for "respectable" people, for instance the disreputable sheriff who forces the out-of-work drifters to move to the outskirts of town. Grandma steals the sheriff's boat, traps a mess of catfish (both illegal activities), and feeds the drifters catfish, fried potatoes, and her home brewed beer (also illegal in those days of Prohibition). Did I mention she was an excellent cook and baker? Although she probably didn't enjoy working day and night rolling out pie dough for pumpkin and pecan pies for the Halloween social, her granddaughter Mary Alice, the narrator of A Year Down Yonder, learned a lot from Grandma Dowdel. "Sometimes I thought I was turning into her. I had to watch out not to talk like her. And I was to cook like her for all the years to come."