As the main focus of the book, Grandma Dowdel is a richly nuanced but static character who is paradoxically both partly caricature and deeply complex. A big, hardy woman, she is an imposing figure with a reputation for over-the-top behavior. When she escorts Mary Alice to her first day of school, August Fluke, the principal, “swallow[s] hard” in anticipation of trouble when he sees her. In an allusion to her quickness and willingness in pulling the trigger of her old blunderbuss, the boys in the class greet her spontaneously by throwing up their hands and hollering, “Don’t shoot! We give up!” Grandma is not a demonstrative, “welcoming woman,” and she never explains “more than the minimum.” In fact, the many rich layers of her character are revealed both to Mary Alice and the reader through her actions rather than her words; she faces the challenges of everyday living with assertiveness and amazing ingenuity.
Grandma is a formidable woman in all ways. She can be crafty and conniving in any given situation and is perfectly capable of beating at their own games those who would take advantage of others. She outwits the notorious class bully, Mildred Burdick, when the disagreeable girl tries to extort a dollar from Mary Alice; she does not hesitate to douse the ringleader of a pack of local boys with a pan of hot glue while they are in the act of vandalizing her outhouse. Grandma has particularly little patience with pretentiousness and hypocrisy. With a keen sense of justice, she shames those who can afford it into paying more for their share of “burgoo” so a poor widow and her disabled son will have something to live on, and she exposes the ignominious lineage of the banker’s wife when that pompous woman tries to use her illustrious but fabricated pedigree to lord it over her perceived inferiors.
Grandma is uncannily sensitive toward both the needs and capabilities of others. She expects the best from those around her, but she is most demanding when it comes to her own behavior. Mary Alice is astounded as she watches Grandma “gasping with the work and the cold” as she traps in the dead of winter. She suddenly realizes that Grandma is old and that the tremendous effort she puts forth without complaint in everything she does must exact a harsh toll in discomfort and pain....
(The entire section is 961 words.)