The Great Depression is finally over in 1937, but times are still hard. Because her parents cannot care for her while they struggle to regain their financial footing back in Chicago, fifteen-year-old Mary Alice is sent to live with her Grandma Dowdel in a small town in southern Illinois. Although she and her brother, Joey, have spent summers with Grandma before, this time Mary Alice will be going alone—for an indeterminate length of time. Mary Alice arrives at the train station with only a small trunk of clothing, a radio, and her beloved cat, Bootsie. She feels unhappy about the changes taking place in her life.
Grandma Dowdel is a big, imposing woman with a personality to match. Mary Alice receives no hug from her undemonstrative relative when she gets off of the train. Instead, she is immediately whisked off to the local high school to be enrolled in the eleventh grade. Through no fault of her own, Mary Alice has an immediate confrontation with Mildred Burdick, the offspring of the most lawless and shiftless family in town. Mildred follows Mary Alice home to collect a dollar she is attempting to extort from the new “rich Chicago girl,” but she is no match for Grandma Dowdel. In a frank foreshadowing of things to come, Grandma cunningly outwits Mildred and sends her packing. She tells her granddaughter, “I can’t fight all your battles for you, but I can give you a level start.”
Mary Alice endures the first weeks of school. She is befriended by skinny Ina-Rae Gage but is ostracized by the other girls, who are led by the popular Carleen Lovejoy. Before long, it is Halloween. To provide pies for the party at school, Grandma secures a bounty of pecans from Old Man Nyquist’s tree by cheerfully ramming it with a tractor to make the nuts fall on the ground in a torrent. Later, when she perceives that pranksters are about to vandalize her outhouse, she catches the ringleader with a tripwire and douses him with a pan of stinking, hot homemade glue.
On Armistice Day, Grandma rouses her reluctant granddaughter before dawn so they can attend the annual commemoration at the old Abernathy farm. There will be a turkey shoot and a meal of burgoo, a kind of community stew made from whatever contributions the attendees bring. Grandma takes charge of stirring the burgoo and selling it by the cupful for a dime, more or less. The crafty woman seems to know each individual family’s financial situation, and she makes a lot of money by boldly insisting on more than the required amount from those who can afford it. Mary Alice later discovers that the funds raised are for the benefit of the destitute Mrs. Abernathy and her son, who was gassed in the trenches of the Great War and is now blind and wheelchair-bound. Thanks to Grandma, they raise enough money to support the Abernathys for a year.
With the first snow, Grandma Dowdel goes trapping. As Mary Alice observes her slaving in the frozen night, her perception of her larger-than-life relative begins to change. She notices how hard her grandmother works herself despite her age, and she begins “to want to be...with her, to make sure [she] come[s] safely home.” Grandma drives a hard bargain with the fur broker when he comes to town, and she uses the first of the money to buy Mary Alice a pair of shoes she needs badly.
Mary Alice has been chosen to play Baby Jesus’ Mother in the school Christmas program. Grandma thoughtfully fashions her a halo out of baling wire and stars painstakingly cut from a tin can, a task that must have taken “a day’s worth to make.” Grandma also arranges for Joey to come to...
(The entire section is 1464 words.)