Sticky and hot, we stood breathless in the tiny back room, paint rollers in hand, staring at the boxy CD player in the corner. What would this outrageous author say next? Would mom be mad? Would she laugh? What sort of name is Ina-Rae?
My family lives and breathes audiobooks and audio dramas. Some of us cried over Brian Jacques’s Martin the Warrior. Others despised John R. Erickson’s Hank the Cowdog. All were pleasantly surprised by Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (though we strongly disliked the movie). These and many, many others have filled countless hours on road trips, whiled away rainy summer days, and distracted us during house-cleaning projects. When my family embarked on a new project in June of 2016 — this time, painting the walls of my 19th-century house-turned-dorm in Hillsdale, Mich. — we were sure to have a new audio adventure handy.
Always on the hunt for good audiobooks for her voracious listeners, my mom had picked up Richard Peck’s A Year Down Yonder from the local library. Peck’s works were as yet unknown to us, and we had no idea what we were in for.
Richard Peck (1934–2018) was an odd but incredibly keen writer. His grasp of human nature and his expert manipulation of the English language give his seemingly short books a surprising depth and richness. A born Midwesterner (he hailed from Illinois), Peck moved to New York City around 1965, but based a number of his stories in or near his home state. While much of his work is considered young adult fiction, Peck did venture into other genres, too. In each book, particularly in his historical novels, Peck had a way of weaving fact and fiction together that shock, enlighten, and delight his readers. With seeming ease, he could capture the peculiarities of an era while entertaining us with the outlandish goings on of his characters.
One of these tales is dominated by Grandma Dowdel, the larger-than-life resident of a tiny Depression-era town in the aforementioned A Year Down Yonder (and its prequel, A Long Way from Chicago). As I said in NRO’s 2020 Book Symposium:
Grandma Dowdel keeps herself to herself; is a dead shot with the twelve-gauge Winchester; and can outsmart any banker, sheriff, or DAR member in the whole county. Our God is a God of justice, but Grandma Dowdel must think He works too slowly. This slim volume is nearly unbeatable for its razor-sharp wit and side-splitting vignettes. A literary character of impossible proportions, Grandma Dowdel’s antics will leave you in stitches and maybe with a few tricks to tuck up your sleeve.
Grandma’s larks (and her pet saying, “Hoo boy”) never get old and have prompted numerous playbacks in our house, just so we can get another listen of the superb narration. Strong female characters are a hallmark of Peck’s writing, a theme he credits to his being raised in a house full of tough women. But it isn’t just Grandma who captures your interest. You can’t help but snicker when pompous Mrs. L. J. Weidenbach (the banker’s wife) comes to call, and you’re unsure of where to look when you meet Grandma’s friend Effie Wilcox (“her eyes and teeth aimed all over the room). Oh, and you sure as heck don’t want to meet any Burdicks. (They have one blue eye and one green eye and are meaner than a mad bull.)
Other Schutte household favorites include Fair Weather!, Here Lies the Librarian, and The Teacher’s Funeral (all of which can be found on audio). These tales, all set in rural Indiana or Illinois — with a jaunt to the Chicago World’s Fair in Fair Weather! — drive home Peck’s delightfully irreverent style. Skeletons stuck in trees (torn up from the cemetery and flung about by a twister), wrench-throwing race-car drivers (they were cheating), and widowed aunts named Euterpe. Humor, gallows and otherwise, ripples through the pages, much of it catching the reader off guard, and often eliciting a physical response. Nothing can top Grandma Dowdel’s ability to make you laugh, but The Teacher’s Funeral comes close.
“If your teacher has to die, August isn’t a bad time of year for it,” reads the first line of the book, subtitled “A Comedy in Three Parts.” In a particularly memorable event, Russell Culver (our protagonist and narrator) is attending the funeral of the town’s much-loathed schoolteacher, when his older sister Tansy stands up and declares that it would be a shame to bury the teacher’s pointer stick with the body — no use in wasting good wood. She then marches up to the coffin and pries it out of Ms. Arbuckle’s cold, dead hands. This is only the beginning of a riotous, heartwarming tale of young boy trying to run off to the Dakotas, his sister determined to make him understand the value of an education.
A former schoolteacher himself, Peck suddenly walked out one day, professing that it was time for him to write. (Cue his pithy line: “The only way you can write is by the light of the bridges burning behind you.”) Peck didn’t mess around. He turned out nearly 40 books over a span of 44 years, showing that his decidedly unusual writing process was quite effective. According to Publisher’s Weekly:
When the author is not traveling, he works at an L-shaped desk, which affords a view north through a large sunny window. He writes everything on an electric typewriter because “it has to be a book from the first day,” he explains. He has no daily routine because of all the traveling he does, but follows a very disciplined writing process. He writes each page six times, then places it in a three-ring binder with a DePauw University cover (“a talisman,” he calls this memento from his alma mater). When he feels that he has gotten a page just right, he takes out another 20 words. “After a year, I’ve come to the end. Then I’ll take this first chapter, and without rereading it, I’ll throw it away and write the chapter that goes at the beginning. Because the first chapter is the last chapter in disguise.” He always hands in a completed manuscript, and his editor is his first reader.
If only we were all so disciplined.
Peck understood his craft — especially the art of showing, rather than telling. His prose conveys intense emotion more through what he leaves unsaid, and it does not come across as sappy.
While his novels are often sidesplittingly funny — which tend to be my personal favorites — he does offer more sobering, historical tales as well. In The River Between Us, for instance, he dives deep into the gritty realities of dirt-poor southern Illinois during the American Civil War. In his account, Peck is able to scale back the messy narrative of that tumultuous war without losing any of the heft and give readers a focused, little-mentioned perspective. It is a female perspective, but it is one that the majority of us haven’t heard told. Peck handles the difficult subject unflinchingly and leaves readers with a serious historical reality to ponder long after they’ve put down the book.
As with all authors, it is wise not to totally embrace their entire cannon of work without careful consideration. Besides the titles mentioned above, Peck also wrote YA books dealing with themes of suicide, teen pregnancy, rape, and gay couples, and he was no stranger to the paranormal genre. A discussion of these and their suitability for various (if any) age groups is worthwhile, but it is not the purpose of this essay.
To tie up a loose end: No, my mom was not mad and yes, she did laugh while listening to these books. In fact, all but The River Between Us have been family road-trip favorites the last few years, keeping us chuckling through long stretches of Michigan backroads. Truly, these books (plus a few others left unmentioned) are worthy candidates for any reading (or listening) list. Whether you need a good laugh or a compelling read, Richard Peck and his raucous cast of characters are waiting for you.