Friday, December 04, 2009

From the Heart: A Season of Gifts by Richard Peck

You could see from here the house was haunted. It hadn't had a lick of paint since VJ Day, maybe the war before that. Only the snowball bushes crowding its foundations seemed to hold the place up.

At night lights moved from room to room. Every evening just at dusk a light bobbed down the walk to the cobhouse and the privy behind and back again.

My little sister Ruth Ann couldn't take her eyes off the place.

"It's like Halloween here in August. I betcha there are spooks inside that house."

And for twelve-year-old Bob that privy becomes his own private house of horrors. Scooped up by the village bullies, led by the massive Roscoe Burdick, they "initiate" him to life in Piatt County, Illinois, by trussing him up and playing water polo with him in the funky brown waters of the local pond and then hanging him, upside down and naked, in a web of fishing line inside that privy, to be eventually found and rescued by the equally frightening Mrs. Dowdel, the nearly ninety-year-old resident of the "haunted house." Mrs. Dowdell wastes no time sizing the situation up:

"I thought I'd seen everything!" she remarked. I made a small sound.

She dumped her corncobs and the Farm Journal and ripped the duct tape off my mouth.

"Yeoww!" I hollered.

"Had to be done," she said. "Who did you say you was?"

I coughed up something--maybe a tadpole. "I'm Bob Barnhart. The boy next door."

"Well, I can see you ain't the girl," said Mrs. Dowdel.

Bob is not the only one in the family for whom prospects look dim in their new home. "I take back every bad thing I ever thought about Terre Haute," Bob's mom laments as she sizes up the situation, and his dad, serving his first pastorate in the dilapidated and almost memberless Methodist Church, spends his first days ministering to the dirty and windowless sanctuary, killing a hog snake and no end of spiders in the choir loft and tacking up plastic over the broken windows. Bob's fifteen-year-old sister Phyllis takes refuge in the daily letters she writes to Elvis and sums up the secret feelings of the family. "I hate this podunk town!"

A most unlikely Christmas angel, Mrs. Dowdel, irascible and short-tempered, proudly proclaiming that she's not a church woman and she doesn't neighbor, nevertheless takes the forlorn family's fortunes into her own large and capable hands. No one knows the ins and outs of the town better than she does, and as the summer turns into autumn, Mrs. Dowdel works her own kind of miracle on every member of the family. Oh, it takes the Halloween appearance of a fake Kickapoo Princess' ghost, the comeuppance of Roscoe Burdick and his accomplices which halts his draft-dodging ways and ends with a shotgun wedding to scheming high school queen Vaynetta Blalock, saving Phyllis from his scruffy attentions and getting at least one Burdick out of town. By book's end, Bob's mother has a proper Methodist Christmas choir to lead, his dad has an overflowing sanctuary and new windows, courtesy of Mrs. Dowdel's jam sales at the triumphant funeral of the Kickapoo Princess led by Rev. Barnhart. And Bob Barnhart, having successfully steered their old car, "The Pickle," on a wild ride into the woods for Mrs. Dowdel's free Christmas tree, feels himself well on the way to manhood.

Richard Peck's newest, A Season of Gifts (Dial, 2009), brings back the memorable Grandma Dowdel of his Newbery books, A Long Way From Chicago (Puffin Modern Classics) and A Year Down Yonder, still feisty and masterful twenty years later, as she finds young people who need her to take their lives by the horns as she did for her grandchildren Joey and Mary Alice a generation earlier.

As Richard Peck shows us in those hilarious and heartwarming books, he excels at stories of the American heartland, set geographically as they are in the Midwest, but also set emotionally squarely in the heart, the place where children--and their elders--really live. As the critic at Kirkus Reviews puts it, "Pitch-perfect prose, laced with humor and poignancy, strong characterization and a clear development of the theme of the gifts one person can offer make this one of Peck's best novels yet-and that's saying something."

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