Title: A Season of Gifts
Author: Richard Peck
Publisher: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2009
Where I got it: Found it at my library, hooray!
Grandma Dowdel, who some readers will recognize from A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder, makes a comeback in this recent novel from acclaimed novelist Richard Peck. The large, tough, but very big-hearted Mrs. Dowdel is the next door neighbor of the Barnhart family, newly moved from Terre Haute, Indiana to the tiny town in Piatt County. Mr. Barnhart, a Methodist preacher, was assigned the small, broken-down church in the tiny town, and all of them have a rough start adjusting to the change of scenery. And though Mrs. Dowdel is not a church woman or one to neighbor, things sure turn around for the Barnharts throughout the second half of 1958, seemingly by circumstance. The narrative starts in the dog days of August, going through the fall season and the major holidays, and finally ending with Christmas.
Richard Peck has such a lovely way of crafting his stories. It never seems rushed or hurried, even when something exciting is happening. Life meanders along, despite all of the crazy schemes and scenarios that seem to crop up when Mrs. Dowdel is around. There are a few marked differences from the two companion novels, besides being set in the late 1950s instead of the Depression—there is a somewhat disturbing scene near the beginning where Bob is bullied pretty badly, to the point of physical abuse. However, this is a pivotal scene, as it gives Mrs. Dowdel a reason to notice him and provides a background for the rest of the story.
The way Peck concocts schemes is genius. Things happen and the reader isn't sure where they're going, but when they fall into place it's nothing short of brilliant. Mrs. Dowdel manages to do all the right things without seeming like she's doing them on purpose, which takes some obvious skill. What she accomplishes for the Barnharts, and how they react to them, is just wonderful. And to see how some of them get involved is not only unexpected, it never failed to make me smile.
All of the characters are believable and their own people, though 6-year-old Ruth Ann adorably starts to talk and act like her elderly neighbor, using phrases like "hoo-boy" and pushing up imaginary spectacles. Phyllis is your typical angsty teen, and Bob is eager to grow up but knows his responsibilities and limits, for the most part. An interesting difference between this book and its companions is we get to see a parental element—the previous volumes just had children reacting to their grandmother, while here we see adult insight as well as that of a child.
This makes great reading for an older audience as well as for children. There are so many references and scenes where younger readers might not get the full picture right away, but adults will understand what is going on while it's happening or right after it happens. Most things are clearly explained by the end of the chapter for those who missed the clues along the way, though there are a few comments that will go unnoticed and unrecognized by younger readers that adults and older children will probably catch—and the story works just as well even if you don't catch them.
One nitpicky thing I disliked was the epilogue. It was a little too obvious for my taste, and didn't quite go with the rest of the tone of the book. My favorite aspect of Peck's writing is his subtlety, and this lacked it completely. Of course, it ended being a Christmas story and with it came some schmaltz, which I normally like, but I felt like this didn't need any. It's a lovely story all its own, and though it's nice to find out what happened to the Barnharts after they left Piatt County, Peck laid it on a bit thick in the last few sentences.
I really liked this book, and anything with Grandma (or Mrs.) Dowdel is sure to be a good time. She has a mind for scheming and a good heart, always looking to do the right thing and to get a little bit of justice for those who can't get it themselves. It's a nice, short book to read right before Christmas, or any time of the year really.