A sequel to Richard Peck’s A Long Way from Chicago
, A Year Down Yonder
explores assumptions, rough justice, and growing up through the continuing adventures of Mary Alice and the Dowdel family. It begins in 1937, with the protagonist and narrator, fifteen-year-old Mary Alice, taking a train from Chicago to an unnamed rural town to live with her grandmother. She is not looking forward to living in what she assumes will be an isolated, backward, country settlement. However, her family are struggling during the Great Depression and cannot currently afford to look after her.
Grandma Dowdel greets Mary Alice by complaining that her radio will be noisy and her cat will need feeding. When she takes Mary Alice to her new school, she advises her granddaughter to avoid her classmate Mildred Burdick as her family is known to be bad news. This turns out to be good advice as Mildred quickly starts picking on Mary Alice and, assuming that she is a spoiled city girl, follows her home on horseback to demand a dollar from Grandma Dowdel. However, Grandma Dowdel simply invites Mildred in and then takes the girl’s shoes and puts them on her horse, which she then sets loose. Mildred has to walk several miles without shoes in order to get home instead of bullying Mary Alice.
Grandma Dowdel stops a Halloween prankster by setting up a booby trap that covers the boy in hot glue. Later, she and Mary Alice do a favor for a farmer named Old Man Nyquist, who says they can have all the pecans that have fallen from his tree if they tow his wagon back to his farm. They agree but find that he tricked them, as there are very few fallen pecans. So, Grandma Dowdel drives the farmer’s tractor into the tree, knocking down more nuts. She uses them to bake pies to serve at the school’s Halloween party. When the principal’s son, Augie Fluke, comes to be served, his bald, raw scalp reveals that he was the Halloween prankster that Grandma Dowdel covered in glue.
When the American Legion holds a shooting contest to commemorate Armistice Day, Augie Fluke attempts to show off his shooting skills to Mary Alice. However, he accidentally manages to shoot out the tire of a Legionnaire’s car while trying to hit a rabbit. Meanwhile, Grandma Dowdel helps make a thrifty “burgoo stew” out of leftover vegetables and offcuts to be sold to attendants for a-dime-a-cup. However, when Grandma Dowdel charges for the stew, she changes the price depending on who is buying it. If they are poor, she does not charge but if they have money to spare, she takes a lot more than a dime. At the end of the day, she gives the collected money to a woman whose son was badly injured in the war.
When the Christmas pageant is organized, Mary Alice is chosen to play the Virgin Mary while her biggest rival, Carleen Lovejoy, is chosen to play the lead angel. Mary Alice is certain that Carleen will use this as an opportunity to show off with the best and brightest costume but once Grandma Dowdel gives her a fantastic halo that she made from tin cans, Mary Alice’s costume far outshines Carleen’s. However, they are both upstaged when it is discovered that Mildred Burdick abandoned her illegitimate child in the manger instead of a doll.
In the new year, the snobbish leader of the local Daughters of the American Revolution group, Mrs. Weidenbach, attempts to persuade
Grandma Dowdel to bake cherry tarts for its yearly celebration of George Washington’s birthday. Although she initially refuses, Grandma Dowdel eventually agrees but only if they hold the celebration at her own rustic home. Meanwhile, Mary Alice has been secretly submitting articles about local gossip to the town newspaper. When a handsome new boy named Royce McNabb joins the school shortly before Valentine’s Day, she also gets the chance to make some gossip. She and her best friend, Ina-Rae, send Ina-Rae a valentine that appears to be from Royce, upsetting Carleen Lovejoy by making her horribly jealous. A week later, Grandma Dowdel invites two rustic, rural women, Effie Wilcox and Aunt Mae Griswold, to the Daughters of the American Revolution party. When Mrs. Weidenbach starts bragging about her family tree, Aunt Mae Wilcox reveals that the conceited woman is actually related to the Burdick family and is Effie Wilcox’s long-lost sister who was abandoned as a baby.
When overpaid artist Arnold Green is sent by the government to do an entirely unnecessary mural on the post office wall, Grandma Dowdel charges him an extortionate amount of his excessive government pay. She also predicts that the postmistress, Maxine Patch, will attempt to seduce him. Meanwhile, Mary Alice invites Royce McNabb over to the house, supposedly for math tutoring. However, they are interrupted by a scream followed by Maxine running through the house naked with a snake draped around her neck. It is revealed that Arnold was painting a nude portrait of Maxine when the snake (which Grandma Dowdel keeps in the rafters to keep down the bird population) dropped onto the postmistress’s naked shoulders. Later, Grandma Dowdel introduces Arnold to Mary Alice’s English teacher and the two bond over their artistic interests and happily begin courting.
Mary Alice receives a message from her parents saying that she will soon be able to return to Chicago. The school year ends, but while they are preparing for the final party, a tornado strikes the town. Grandma Dowdel’s house survives but Old Man Nyquist did not hear the warning siren and is trapped under his bedstead until Grandma Dowdel and Mary Alice rescue him. When the time comes for Mary Alice to leave, both she and Grandma Dowdel are upset, having grown close over the course of the year. However, Mary Alice is not gone for good. In the epilogue, set some years later, she returns to marry Royce, holding the wedding in Grandma Dowdel’s house.