Grandma Dowdel lives! Fans of Richard Peck’s Newbery-winning books A Year Down Yonder and A Long Way from Chicago know that this is indeed good news. If you haven’t met this feisty heroine, you’ve got a treat in store with A Season of Gifts.
This time, the year is 1958, and Elvis is King. A preacher, his wife and three children move next door to Grandma Dowdel in a small Illinois town. The Barnhart family includes Ruth Ann, about to enter first grade, her big sister Phyllis, who adores Elvis, and 11-year-old Bob, our narrator. Bob describes how the town bully and his minions drag him to a nearby creek, strip him of his clothes and duct-tape his mouth shut. It is indeed a horror story, but in Peck’s version, things turn out all right, and justice is finally served. The bullies end their fun by stringing Bob up over Grandma Dowdel’s privy. When she discovers him there, she swears that she will never let anyone know she has witnessed his humiliation.
Grandma quietly helps out all of Bob’s family in the short time that they are next-door neighbors. The Barnharts have little money, and their father’s church is in disrepair with no congregation. Luckily, rumors soon begin to fly that Mrs. Dowdel’s melon patch is haunted by the ghost of a native Kickapoo princess. Hundreds of folks come out to try to get a glimpse. When the crowds become overwhelming, Mrs. Dowdel presents Mr. Barnhart with a box containing, she claims, the princess’ remains. After he preaches a stirring funeral for the circus-like crowd, both his congregation and popularity begin to grow.
Peck’s lovingly written historical fiction provides a wonderful glimpse into times past. Grandma Dowdel fends for herself by canning produce, catching and cooking a turtle, gathering walnuts and hunting birds. Her gifts don’t come from stores, but they certainly last forever in these fast-paced adventures.
Alice Cary writes from Groton, Massachusetts.