If ever there were a character whose time has come, it is Grandma Dowdel. Able to bamboozle a banker into forgiving a widow’s mortgage and feed a train’s worth of hungry men from one day’s fishing, Grandma Dowdel should replace Superman as national hero for the duration.
Her Depression-era exploits – as narrated by her awed grandkids in “A Long Way From Chicago” and “A Year Down Yonder” – won her creator, Richard Peck, a Newbery Honor and a Newbery Medal. (He also picked up a National Humanities Medal – making him the only children’s writer ever to receive that honor.) Now, just in time for the holidays, Peck gives us A Season of Gifts.
It’s 1958, and a new family has moved in next to the last house in town. Grandma, nearing 90, still eschews indoor plumbing and makes her own soap in a caldron over an open fire. Bob and Ruth Ann Barnhart are convinced she’s a witch – because she couldn’t possibly be a ghost.
“So we Barnharts had moved in next door to a haunted house, if a house can be haunted by a living being,” 11-year-old Bob says. “She looked older than the town. But she was way too solid to be a ghost. You sure couldn’t see through her. You could barely see around her.”
Bob meets Grandma when the town boys tie him up and leave him – naked – dangling from a spider’s web of rope in her privy. Grandma famously has little patience for bullies, and she takes the Barnharts under her copious wing.
Little sister Ruth Ann follows Grandma around like a puppy, while teenaged Phyllis moons over Elvis and Bob tries to lay low at school and help his minister father. Their church lacks a few basic amenities – such as windows and a congregation. Grandma aims to fix that, in her own inimitable fashion.
Phyllis, it must be said, is something of a drip. And there are no episodes in “A Season of Gifts” quite as uproarious as in “A Year Down Yonder,” when Grandma has the DAR over to her house for tea, or takes in a boarder who likes to paint in her attic. Nor is there anything that can equal the pathos of the Armistice Day turkey shoot.
That may stem from the fact that Peck is trying something new here: Grandma’s grandkids were privy to her schemes (even when they didn’t know what was going on), while Bob and his family are the recipients of her generosity. Also, the 1950s just aren’t as desperate a time as the Depression.
There is, however, plenty of Peck’s wry humor and classic Midwestern sensibility, which reminds me of memoirist Jean Shepherd. For example, here’s Bob’s mom on her new home in Piatt County: “I take back every bad thing I ever thought about Terre Haute.”
And if Grandma Dowdel has mellowed a touch since “A Long Way From Chicago,” she’s still got her own unorthodox way of getting things done.
“As everybody knew, she didn’t neighbor and went to no known church. She was not only real cranky, but well-armed.” And she will turn out to be the best friend the Barnharts could ask for.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews children’s books for the Monitor.