A Year Down Yonder Essay - Critical Essays

Richard Peck

Literary Criticism and Significance

A Year Down Yonder is the sequel to Richard Peck’s Newbery Honor–winning book, A Long Way from Chicago. In that earlier offering, Mary Alice’s older brother, Joey, recounts the madcap experiences he and his little sister shared during their annual childhood summer visits to Grandma Dowdel’s home in rural southern Illinois. In 1937, Joey is all grown up and out on his own, but Mary Alice is only fifteen and still in high school. A Year Down Yonder is her story, told in her voice, as she is sent alone to spend a year or more with her eccentric grandmother because of her family’s difficult economic situation.

Like its predecessor, A Year Down Yonder is fast moving, funny, and entertaining, and its “larger than life characters” are deftly brought to life with vivid description and wit. The heart of the narrative is the fiery and irrepressible Grandma Dowdel, whose astoundingly unconventional but always purposeful shenanigans result in a series of hilarious adventures which, in the estimation of reviewers, “rest solidly within the American literary tradition of Mark Twain and Bret Harte.”

The author was brought up in Decatur, Illinois, which he calls “the real Illinois a long way from Chicago.” The post-Depression era farm town setting of A Year Down Yonder springs from the author’s own childhood experiences and conveys an authentic sense of “the atmosphere, attitudes, and lifestyle of the times.” The book celebrates the attributes of self-reliance, innovation, and community. With its specific orientation in time and place, it is especially valuable in helping teen readers gain a “historical perspective of the depression years in small-town America.”

A Year Down Yonder is that rare rendering that possesses both simplicity and depth. The book is packed with hilarity and riveting action; it would be perfect in enticing the interest of the reluctant reader. Although the chapters followed in sequence form a unit describing the entire course of Mary Alice’s eleventh-grade year, each chapter can also stand alone, making it ideal for use as material to read aloud in class. Despite its straightforward presentation, the narrative explores key characters and themes with surprising depth, providing astute insights on the range of human behavior and the nature of love.

A Year Down Yonder has been named an American Library Association Notable Book and an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults, and it won the prestigious Newbery Medal in 2001.