Joey Dowdel and his sister Mary Alice spend a week in August with their Grandma every year. The two are "just kids" at the time of their first few visits, but though Grandma remains constant, their perception of her changes as they grow up.
Chapter 1: "Shotgun Cheatham's Last Night Above Ground—1929"
Joey is nine and Mary Alice is seven the first time they go to stay with Grandma Dowdel. Their parents put them on the Wabash Railroad's Blue Bird, which leaves Chicago's Dearborn Station bound for St. Louis. Somewhere in between those two points, Grandma lives in the last house of one of the many small towns lying along the tracks. Mary Alice hates the place because at Grandma's, one has to go outside to use the bathroom, and there is never anything to do.
Joey and Mary Alice often stroll "uptown," which is a short block of brick buildings—a bank, insurance agency, store, and The Coffee Pot Cafe. It is during the height of Prohibition, and though there are a few automobiles, most farmers come to town on horse-drawn wagons. Things are definitely slow in Grandma's town—until the burial of Shotgun Cheatham.
Shotgun Cheatham was "just an old reprobate who lived poor and died broke," and he might have been buried in the same obscurity in which he lived had it not been for his distinctive name. A big city newspaper notices Shotgun's obituary in a local newspaper and sends a reporter to Grandma's small town in search of a story. Rumors abound at the Coffee Pot Cafe, as townspeople welcome the hapless investigator and vie to tell all they know about the deceased; most of their tales are exaggerations. Mrs. Effie Wilcox, "a real old, humped-over lady with buck teeth," tells the most outrageous whoppers of all, until Grandma has her say.
The reporter, going door-to-door in search of more information, comes out to Grandma's house. Joey and Mary Alice...
(The entire section is 680 words.)
Chapter 2: "The Mouse in the Milk—1930"
When Joey and Mary Alice are sent to Grandma Dowdel's for the second year in a row, they begin to see that this is going to be an annual event. Mary Alice in particular is not happy about this and "pitch[es] a fit." Having no choice, however, the children dutifully go. As they sit in Grandma's house one long, uneventful evening soon after their arrival, they hear a horse come by; it stops briefly, then gallops off. Moments later, there is a flash of light and a deafening explosion. Grandma goes out to investigate and discovers that her mailbox has been blown "sky high." Surveying the ruin, she mutters an ominous word: "Cowgills."
During breakfast the next morning, Mrs. Effie Wilcox comes to the door, asking to use Grandma's privy. The one at her house has been wrenched from its foundation and flung into the yard by vandals. Grandma gives her permission, then settles back into her chair, again muttering thoughtfully, "Cowgills."
Joey and Mary Alice find Grandma's Winchester Model 21 prominently displayed on the kitchen table next to a box of shells when they come down for breakfast the next morning. Grandma herself is talking to Ernie Cowgill, a hulking, dim-witted sixteen-year-old whose family runs the local dairy. Ernie has come to deliver milk, and Grandma complains to him that she found a dead mouse in one of the bottles delivered the day before. She then mentions to Ernie that she will not need anything the next day, as she will be going away.
The children know that Grandma is telling another one of her whoppers. When Joey asks what the shotgun is for, she responds cryptically, "Bait." Later that day, she catches a "good-sized mouse" in a trap, slips the grisly body into an empty bottle, then covers it with milk. After supper, when night falls, Grandma locks the door and will not allow the children to turn on the lights. The children know that some...
(The entire section is 697 words.)
Chapter 3: "A One-Woman Crime Wave—1931"
The Great Depression is in full swing when Joey and Mary Alice make their annual visit to Grandma's in 1931. Droves of men are riding the rails in search of sustenance and work, and when the children arrive in Grandma's town, they see a sign on the station platform that reads, "DRIFTERS KEEP MOVING—THIS MEANS YOU!" Grandma's house is the last one in town, close to the Wabash tracks. At night, the children can hear the sounds "of shuffling boots and sometimes a voice," as law enforcement officers carrying shotguns keep the drifters moving along so that they do not loiter and beg for food around town.
One morning, Grandma announces to Joey and Mary Alice that they are going fishing. She shoulders a gunnysack of putrid-smelling cheese-bait, hands Joey a hamper of picnic supplies to carry, and leads them on a long hike to Salt Creek. When the three of them come to a barbed-wire fence with a "NO TRESPASSING" sign tacked on it, Grandma somehow manages to shimmy under it, and she instructs the children to do the same. The arduous hike continues, until, at the creek bottom, Grandma pulls a decrepit rowboat out of a tangle of vines and whispers to the children to "climb aboard."
With amazing facility, Grandma rows out into the creek and upstream along the bank. At a predetermined point she stops, searches, then withdraws from the water a large orange crate filled with writhing catfish. Aghast, Joey, the son of a fisherman, asks Grandma, "...is trapping fish legal in this state?" She responds, "If it was...we wouldn't have to be so quiet."
The trap apparently does not belong to Grandma, but she replenishes the bait and resets it. As the trio heads back with their stolen catch, they hear raucous singing coming from around a bend in the creek. A group of half-naked, drunken men are carousing on the porch of the creekside Rod & Gun Club. When Grandma...
(The entire section is 780 words.)
Chapter 4: "The Day of Judgment—1932"
By 1932, Joey and Mary Alice realize that they actually look forward to their annual visits with Grandma. On their first morning there this year, they awaken to find Grandma busily at work in the kitchen, making her famous gooseberry pies. Pompous Mrs. L. J. Weidenbach drops by, with a clear purpose in mind. She wants Grandma to enter one of her renowned pies in competition at the upcoming county fair, to give their "small community" the opportunity to "make its mark."
Ordinarily, Mrs. Weidenbach's own bread-and-butter pickles take first prize at the contest, but this year, in the midst of the Depression, negative public feeling is running high against the bankers. Mr. Weidenbach wants to keep a low profile until times are better, so he has asked his wife not to enter her pickles at the fair this year. Mrs. Weidenbach is determined that the community should have a good showing, however. She has come to try to convince Grandma to enter one of her pies instead. Grandma relents when Mrs. Weidenbach agrees to drive her and the children to the fair on prize day in her Hupmobile.
A flurry of activity ensues as Grandma and the children bake countless pies in search of one worthy of a blue ribbon at the county fair. When the big day finally comes, Joey and Mary Alice are dumbfounded to see their normally plainly-clothed grandmother all decked out in a ready-made dress covered with flowers and a wide-brimmed hat decorated with blue ribbon to match. When they arrive at the fair, Grandma insists that they explore the grounds before going to the culinary competition. Joey, whose hero is Charles A. Lindbergh, is particularly captivated by a biplane that awaits in an open field. The pilot, Barnie Buchanan, will take passengers for a ride for the exorbitant fee of...
(The entire section is 771 words.)
Chapter 5: "The Phantom Brakeman—1933"
It is 1933, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the nation's new president. Shirley Temple is the new entertainment sensation, and Mary Alice, like every other girl in America, is learning to tap dance in imitation of the child star. Joey is thirteen, a teenager at last. He likes to be called Joe now, not Joey.
During their annual trip to Grandma's, Joe and Mary Alice go down to the Coffee Pot Cafe one day to enjoy some Nehi sodas. Mary Alice befriends Vandalia Eubanks, a skinny, pale seventeen-year-old who works there as a waitress. While they are talking, the girl's mother comes in and demands her daughter's wages. Later, Mary Alice tells Joe that...
(The entire section is 751 words.)
Chapter 6: "Things With Wings—1934"
Grandma is at the depot when Joe and Mary Alice arrive this year, but she has not come to meet them. Instead, she is seeing somebody off. Mrs. Effie Wilcox, her "sworn enemy," is moving away because the bank has foreclosed on her house. That day at noon dinner, the children regale their grandmother with the exciting news about the killing of the notorious John Dillinger back in Chicago. Grandma is uncharacteristically subdued, however, and Mary Alice acutely observes, "Grandma's missing Mrs. Wilcox."
In the evening, Grandma takes the children to the park to see a picture show. The movie being shown is "a Dracula," and its intensity leaves everyone a...
(The entire section is 810 words.)
Chapter 7: "Centennial Summer—1935"
On Joe and Mary Alice's last annual summer visit to Grandma Dowdel's, the town is in the midst of a gala celebration commemorating "A Century of Progress." Although Grandma feigns disinterest, she tells the children that there will be a talent show that they just might "look in on" and a parade that they can view from the porch.
Grandma sends her grandchildren up into the attic again, this time to search for appropriate old-time attire for all of them to wear to the festivities. Mary Alice discovers a lovely white dress with seed pearls and a bustle; she also finds a dandy black waistcoat with drainpipe pants, a string tie, and a derby hat. She convinces...
(The entire section is 817 words.)