A Year Down Yonder
Richard Peck (Juvenile Historical Fiction)
It was 1937 and the country was in the midst of what people were calling the Roosevelt recession. The Dowdel family, like so many others, had hit upon hard times and Mary Alice was to be sent to live with her grandmother until the family got back on their feet. She and her brother, Joey, had spent many summers with Grandma Dowdel in her sleepy Illinois town, but Mary Alice was fifteen now and this visit was going to be a full twelve months! With no telephone, an outdoor privy, a spooky attic, and everything being as old as Grandma…if not older…how was a city girl from Chicago going to survive in this hick town for one whole year?
A Year Down Yonder received the Newbery Medal in 2001 and was the sequel to Peck’s A Long Way from Chicago, recipient of a Newbery Honor in 1999. In this wildly amusing and heartfelt book, Peck delivers one of the most outrageous, audacious, outlandish, and unforgettable characters when he gave us Grandma Dowdel. She’s trigger-happy (and the whole town knows it) and not afraid to speak her mind. But behind that gruff and crusty exterior lies a woman who’s generous to a fault and genuinely cares about her neighbors…although she would be the first to deny it. Peck gives us small-town life and everything that comes with it. From turkey shoots and Halloween hijinks to Burdicks (you’ll know one when you see ‘em) and burgoo, Grandma Dowdel handles everything with humor and candor and might even treat you to a glass of buttermilk and a square of corn bread in the process.
A Year Down Yonder takes readers to rural America and back to a time where folks learned how to make the most with what little they had and considered themselves blessed if they had their health, their family, and one or two people that could be counted on when it mattered most. It’s a delightful and amusing book that extolls the virtues of kindness and the importance of family. It also reminds us not to judge a book by its cover for it is often the tartest apples that make the best pies. Just ask Grandma Dowdel.
*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com
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In honor of Halloween, we’ll be reviewing ghoulishly scary and spooky books throughout the month of October.
Ghost on Black Mountain
Ann Hite (Adult Fiction)
“Mama warned me against marrying Hobbs Pritchard. She saw my future in her tea leaves: death.”
Nellie Clay was only 17 when she married 25-year old Hobbs Pritchard. With just a feed sack of clothes, some trinkets, and a childhood full of memories, she leaves the only home she has ever known and moves to Black Mountain with a man she barely knows and the ghosts he has spent a lifetime creating.
Ghost on Black Mountain is a haunting tale of abuse, power, greed, and fervent love. There is not a soul on Black Mountain that hasn’t been negatively impacted or affected by Hobbs Pritchard, and his toxic anger and avarice blanket the mountain like mist on a crisp autumn morning. Hite does a credible job in conveying the torment and fear unleashed on a tightly-knit mountain community by a man consumed by evil and jealousy. The author keeps the story interesting by having different female characters narrate and share their own histories and perspectives. Near the end of the book, just when you thought you were safely out of the woods, Hite throws in an unexpected twist by introducing an unknown character. Rather than stall the story’s progression with this sudden interruption, this shift actually adds to the story’s mounting tension and brings us ever closer to an inevitable tipping point. As this character’s story is slowly unraveled, we become uncomfortably and painfully aware that the ghost on Black Mountain may never truly rest in peace.
Ghost on Black Mountain is Hite’s first novel and she gives readers a truly gripping and all-consuming story of good versus evil and the price one is willing to pay for redemption. Like the ghosts on Black Mountain, this story and its characters will linger in your mind and lurk in your memory long after the last page is turned.
* Book cover image attributed to http://www.amazon.com
The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs
Betty G. Birney (Juvenile Fiction)
“Sometimes extraordinary things begin in ordinary places” and, according to 11-year old Eben McAllister, there is absolutely, positively NO place more ordinary than Sassafras Springs. On this particularly hot July day, while Eben is buried in his book about the Seven Wonders of the World, his father offers him a deal: find seven Wonders in seven days in Sassafras Springs and he will buy Eben a ticket to Colorado. SEVEN? Eben can’t imagine even finding ONE Wonder let alone seven. But with a ticket out of town on the line, Eben is ready, willing, and able to look just about anywhere and everywhere to find them.
With folksy, down-home dialogue and quirky, lovable characters, Birney makes even an ordinary saw, a worn-down table, and a waterlogged bookcase true Wonders. Her story is like a tall glass of cold lemonade and the best spot on the front porch: refreshing, pleasing, and thoroughly enjoyable. I found it bittersweet when I came to the last page of this book. Having to say goodbye to Eben, his trusty dog, Sal, and the folks of Sassafras Springs was akin to leaving home for the first time. But as Eben reminds us, when Columbus and Balboa set off to discover faraway lands, even they knew that it wasn’t “goodbye”, just “see you soon”.
I hope this little gem encourages readers to discover or rediscover the treasure that lies right outside their own doorstep, for sometimes the biggest Wonders are right in our own backyard.
* Book cover image attributed to www.fab.lexile.com
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
Helen Simonson (Adult Fiction)
Ernest Pettigrew (that’s MAJOR Pettigrew to you) is retired and enjoying his tea, books, garden, and a rather predictable life in Edgecombe St. Mary. That is until his brother unexpectedly dies, his son is dating some leggy American from New York, and he’s suddenly developed a rather uncontrollable fancy for Mrs. Ali, a widowed woman from Pakistan who runs the village shop. Why, it’s enough to leave this settled, retired gentleman rather…unsettled. And that won’t do.
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand was Simonson’s first novel and she didn’t shy away from sensitive and controversial topics. Instead, she fearlessly jumps in with both feet and tackles cultural and religious conformity head on. The book begs the question, “Is it possible for someone in the minority to be accepted by the majority: fully and unconditionally?” She broaches the subject with honesty and respect and, most importantly, shows us the fallout of when the heart overrides the horde. The front flap states, “Sometimes love does conquer all”, but I found that not to be entirely accurate. Love may conquer most, but it is not infallible. While the war may be bravely fought, there will be casualties and lives will be changed—whether for the better or worse depends of which side of the battle line you happen to fall.
All in all, Simonson succeeds in delivering a witty, charming, and delightful read and she gives us a main character deserving of his own BBC series. The writing is crisp and intelligent, the story advances at a steady and comfortable pace, and the list of characters range from the exasperating to the enchanting. All combine nicely—like a good cup of tea, a nice plate of biscuits, and a robust fire in the grate—to fulfill even the most particular of palates.