Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Seasonal affective order

I was a fairly new youth librarian (actually I don't think I was even a librarian) when I read and loved the first Grandma Dowdel stories (A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder) by Richard Peck. What a lovely surprise to find that she kept going for another 25 years, and hardly mellowed at all. In A Season of Gifts, Grandma no longer has any relatives bunking with her (although a great grandson makes a late appearance); instead she's living next door to 12-year-old Bob Barnhart, newly arrived PK (preacher's kid). Bob is expecting trouble, and he gets it (in typically wacky Peck fashion). Fortunately, Mrs. Dowdel effects a rescue and a tentative friendship begins. Her generous spirit and cranky exterior get Bob and his family -- along with many other residents of that small, southern Illinois town-- through the year 1958-59 with some lessons learned and a great deal of fun.

Like its predecessors, the events of the year are told in an episodic fashion that (to me) means that this book is crying to be read out loud. A chapter a day in the classroom would provide a delightful diversion in the weeks between Thanksgiving and the winter break. Not being a teacher, I wonder if playing the CD for the 15 minutes or so of each chapter has the same effect on students that the teacher reading aloud has. This way, teacher can doodle or stare out the window or sit with her eyes closed as well. Well, the audiobook is now available at your library!

The stories are a nostalgic look back from Bob, which means that an adult voice is completely appropriate. Ron McLarty, who reads the first Granda Dowdel book as well as a whole raft of other audiobooks including The Great Brain, is just terrific. He's pretty matter-of-fact, almost deadpan, in his reading, there's very little sentiment in these sentimental stories; but I definitely hear in his voice that of grandpa telling his grandkids some crazy stories from his childhood. His low-key interpretation gives you -- the listener -- the chance to react to the events of the story itself, rather than the way it's being told.

McLarty delivers some characters that are fun to listen to -- several old ladies in particular: crusty Mrs. Dowdel, loopy Mrs. Wilcox, decrepit Aunt Madge Burdick, and the formidable Miss Flora Shellabarger. There's a lot a manly man can do to humorously portray old women (see Monty Python) and McLarty lets his feminine side loose. But he also creates a pastoral, yet authoritative voice for Bob's father. And I really liked that when Bob is speaking in these episodes, he's got a not-quite-broken boy's voice. Then McLarty uses his adult voice to tell us the past tense stories themselves.

The opening and closing music sounds like the intro to an Elvis tune (without actually being an Elvis song ... pesky copyright!) which sets exactly the right mood. I wanted to hear more music in this audiobook: Bob mentions many hymns and Christmas carols (in public domain?) that it would have been nice to hear sung rather than read. There is -- of course -- the possibility that Mr. McLarty is not a singer.

Oh, and I learned that I've been mispronouncing Grandma's name. It's DOW-del (I read it as dow-DELL). What a relief to know at last!

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