A Season of Gifts

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9780142417294: A Season of Gifts

One of the most adored characters in childrenÕs literature is the eccentric, forceful, bighearted Grandma Dowdel, star of the Newbery AwardÐwinning A Year Down Yonder and Newbery HonorÐwinning A Long Way from Chicago. And it turns out that her story isnÕt over. ItÕs now 1958, and a new family has moved in next door to Mrs. Dowdel: a minister and his wife and kids. Soon Mrs. Dowdel will work her particular brand of charm on all of them, and they will quickly discover that the last house in town might also be the most vital.

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About the Author:

Richard Peck has written more than thirty novels, and in the process has become one of the country’s most highly respected writers for children. In fact The Washington Post called him “America’s best living author for young adults.” A versatile writer, he is beloved by middle-graders as well as young adults for his historical and contemporary comedies and coming-of-age novels. He lives in New York City, and spends a great deal of time traveling around the country to speaking engagements at conferences, schools, and libraries.

Mr. Peck is the first children’s book author to have received a National Humanities Medal. He is a Newbery Medal winner (for A Year Down Yonder), a Newbery Honor winner (for A Long Way from Chicago), a two-time National Book Award finalist, and a two-time Edgar Award winner. In addition, he has won a number of major honors for the body of his work, including the Margaret A. Edwards Award, the ALAN Award, and the Medallion from the University of Southern Mississippi.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Mrs. Dowdel

One evening we were just settling around the supper table. There were some slices of ham from somewhere. Mother had pulled together a potato salad out of three potatoes. We’d just joined hands. Dad began, “For what we are about to receive—”

When an almighty explosion rocked the room. Our kitchen clock stopped, and the box of matches jumped off the stove. Every nesting bird in the county took flight.

Russians, we thought, and without a Civil Defense bomb shelter for miles. Another explosion erupted and bounced off every house from here to the grain elevator.

Ruth Ann slid off her chair and was at the kitchen door. We all followed. Now Mrs. Dowdel, gray in the gloaming, loomed out from around her cobhouse. In one of her hands hung a double-barreled shotgun, an old-time Winchester 21, from the look of it. Both barrels smoked.

In her other fist she carried a pair of headless rats. They hung by their tails, and they were good-sized, almost cat-sized.

She lumbered up to her cauldron and swung the rats onto the white embers beneath. As a family, we turned away just as they burst into flame.

Also by Richard Peck

NOVELS FOR YOUNG ADULTS

Amanda/Miranda

Are You in the House Alone?

Bel-Air Bambi and the Mall Rats

Blossom Culp and the Sleep of Death

Close Enough to Touch

Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt

The Dreadful Future of Blossom Culp

Dreamland Lake

Fair Weather

Father Figure

The Ghost Belonged to Me

Ghosts I Have Been

The Great Interactive Dream Machine

Here Lies the Librarian

The Last Safe Place on Earth

A Long Way from Chicago

Lost in Cyberspace

On the Wings of Heroes

Princess Ashley

Remembering the Good Times

Representing Super Doll

The River Between Us

Secrets of the Shopping Mall

Strays Like Us

The Teacher’s Funeral

Those Summer Girls I Never Met

Through a Brief Darkness

Unfinished Portrait of Jessica

Voices After Midnight

A Year Down Yonder

NOVELS FOR ADULTS

Amanda/Miranda

London Holiday

New York Time

This Family of Women

SHORT STORIES

Past Perfect, Present Tense

PICTURE BOOK

Monster Night at Grandma’s House

NONFICTION

Anonymously Yours

Invitations to the World

RICHARD PECK

A Season of Gifts

The Last House in Town

CHAPTER ONE

Locked and Loaded

You could see from here the house was haunted. Its crooked old lightning rods pointed bony fingers at the sky. It hadn’t had a lick of paint since VJ Day, maybe the war before that. A porch sagged off the side. The kitchen screen door hung from a hinge. 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. She’d rest her chin on the windowsill and plant her nose on screen wire. What else did she have to do?

“It’s like Halloween here in August,” she’d say. “I betcha there are spooks inside that house.”

“No,” Mother said behind her. “No spooks.”

“What do you think, Bobby?” I was Ruth Ann’s big brother, so she thought I knew things. “Spooks or not?”

Over her head, Mother gave me one of her direct looks, so I said, “Probably not.”

But even when Ruth Ann took her hula hoop and her doll buggy out on our front walk, she was all eyes. She’d watch the house while she revolved in her hoop and rocked her doll. She spent a lot of time outside, hoping a friend would happen to her.

So we Barnharts had moved in next door to a haunted house, if a house can be haunted by a living being. But the old lady who lived over there had to be just this side of the grave with one foot in it. She looked older than the town. But she was way too solid to be a ghost. You sure couldn’t see through her. You could barely see around her.

A long straight garden grew down this side of her property. Every blazing morning she’d tramp off her back porch and down her garden rows with a hoe humped on her shoulder. Her straw hat looked like she’d swiped it off a mule. It hid her face except for the chins. She worked right through high noon in a fog of flies, hoeing, yanking weeds, and talking to her tomato plants.

The heat slowed her some, and the flies. But she could be amazingly light on her big pins. We’d already seen her take a broom and swat a Fuller Brush man off her porch. She kept right at his heels till he was off her property.

As everybody knew, she didn’t neighbor and went to no known church. She was not only real cranky, but well-armed. Word was that she had a regular arsenal of weaponry behind her woodbox. They said it was like Fort Leonard Wood behind her stove. They said she was locked and loaded.

She had to be pushing ninety, so rumors had grown up around her. One was that her property was on top of an ancient Kickapoo burying grounds, and that’s spooky right there.

Only a ragged row of fleshy red canna flowers separated her garden from our yard. “You children stay on this side of the cannas,” Mother said. “Let’s let sleeping dogs lie.”

Mother didn’t have to worry about me. I was a boy, but not that brave. I wouldn’t have set a toe over that line. And she didn’t mean my big sister, Phyllis, who was sulking upstairs over having to start high school in a new town. Mother meant Ruth Ann. She was hard to keep track of unless she was following you around.

“Remember who we are,” Mother said. “And we’re new here. All eyes are upon us.”

It wasn’t going to be the kind of town that rolls out the welcome mat. Still, a few people brought us things to eat just to see us up close. On a good day, an angel food cake. Moore’s IGA store sent us out some half-price coupons and a sample size of Rinso soap. But Moore’s was cash-and-carry, and we didn’t have any cash.

Toward the end of our first week, somebody left five dandy ears of sweet corn on our porch. They were half silked to show the pearly kernels. But unknown hands had left the corn. They couldn’t be from next door, since no corn grew in Mrs. Dowdel’s garden.

CHAPTER TWO

Revival Dust

I tried to make August last because September, and school, didn’t look good. We were not only newcomers, but we were P.K.s—preacher’s kids. So everybody’d be gunning for us, and we’d be living in a fishbowl.

But not yet, not in August. Cut us this much slack. Let’s get settled here in this new house before we have to take on the town. The house was okay. I had my own room.

“Let’s give thanks we have an indoor bathroom,” Dad said. The town was still crawling with privies and pumps, though our house and the house next door were about the only ones without television antennas. Around here you needed an antenna twice as high as your house, if you had television.

Mother stood over Ruth Ann at our side window, gazing out past the peeling house next door to open, empty country.

“I take back every bad thing I ever thought about Terre Haute,” Mother often said in a far-off voice.

We saw a lot of Mrs. Dowdel next door. There was a lot of her to see. But she never seemed to see us back. She didn’t have time. On a circle of burned grass in her yard an iron pot hung from a tripod. She seemed to be pulping down apples for apple butter over a white-hot fire. She stirred an ancient paddle with holes in it. Once in a while she’d stand back to mop up under the mule hat. Then back to stirring she’d go, two-fisted on the long paddle.

“I betcha that’s witch’s brew in that cauldron,” Ruth Ann said, very interested. “I betcha Mrs. Dowdel has warts where you can’t see.”

“There are no witches,” Mother said. “There are only old ladies who prize their privacy.”

Mrs. Dowdel weeded like a wild woman. Only when somebody passed on the road would she stand up and glance that way, running a hand down her back. Never waving. There was a bunch of boys in town, big ugly ones. They’d tramp past, heading for the crick every afternoon, punching each other. Mrs. Dowdel always watched them out of sight. She seemed to take an interest in them, but not a friendly interest. Then she’d have several sharp things to say to her tomatoes.

One evening we were just settling around the supper table. There were some slices of ham from somewhere. Mother had pulled together a potato salad out of three potatoes. We’d just joined hands. Dad began, “For what we are about to receive—”

When an almighty explosion rocked the room. Our kitchen clock stopped, and the box of matches jumped off the stove. Every nesting bird in the county took flight.

Russians, we thought, and without a Civil Defense bomb shelter for miles. Another explosion erupted and bounced off every house from here to the grain elevator.

Ruth Ann slid off her chair and was at the kitchen door. We all followed. Now Mrs. Dowdel, gray in the gloaming, loomed out from around her cobhouse. In one of her hands hung a double-barreled shotgun, an old-time Winchester 21, from the look of it. Both barrels smoked.

In her other fist she carried a pair of headless rats. They hung by their tails, and they were good-sized, almost cat-sized.

She lumbered up to her cauldron and swung the rats onto the white embers beneath. As a family, we turned away just as they burst into flame.

“This is why the Methodist Conference stuck us in this house, this so-called parsonage,” Phyllis said. “Who else would live next door to her? I hate this town. I can’t tell you how much.”

*  *  *

Headless rats darted across my dreams through those nights. By day I helped Dad down at the church. There’d been a church building to spare when the two bunches of United Brethren united again. They naturally went with the better church building, brick. We got the other one. And it looked more like a corncrib than anything else—one puff of wind from a pile of kindling. Somebody’d shot out all the windows, and the roof was a sieve.

Dad had already killed a hog snake coiled in the choir loft. He and the snake met up by chance, and all Dad could think of to do was drop a box of hymnals on its head.

And if you don’t like spiders, this wasn’t your kind of place.

We kept busy. I sanded and shellacked the pews. Dad fitted the windows with plastic sheeting. There wasn’t money for plate glass. There wasn’t money for anything. We were eating off our own front porch.

Dad sang hymns while we worked: “Stand up! Stand up for Jesus.” Peppy hymns. He had a fine baritone voice, only a little wobbly on the high notes. I’d jump in with some harmony for him, though I was still pretty much a soprano. “We must not! We must not! We must not suffer loss!” we sang, ringing a rafter or two. I didn’t think we were half bad. But Dad was a worried man. He could do about anything with his hands. He had big hands. But it was going to take more than hammer and nails.

Over in Terre Haute he’d been assistant pastor at Third Methodist. This was the first pulpit all his own. It was going to be make-it-or-break-it for Dad here. And we hadn’t seen many of those Methodists we’d heard were waiting for The Word and a preacher to bring it.

Still, we had time to get the place squared away. August was the big tent-show revival month. You couldn’t get a church off the ground until the revival dust settled.

A sign appeared out by Mrs. Dowdel’s mailbox:

SPARE ROOMS FOR BELIEVERS

A tent the size of Ringling Brothers’ big top rose in the park uptown, the bald ground between the business block and the Norfolk & Western tracks. A giant banner stretched high between the tent poles, reading:

YOU THINK IT’S HOT HERE!

The number one evangelist of the sawdust circuit was coming for a week of preaching. He was Delmer “Gypsy” Piggott, well-known in his time, though his time was running out. They called him the Texas Tornado for his preaching style. He’d built a big tabernacle at Del Rio.

We didn’t go that Monday night. Local preachers and their families didn’t. It wasn’t our kind of worship.

Besides, money in the revival’s collection plate was money that never made it to ours. In a week Gypsy Piggott could scare a lot of money out of a town.

But the revival came to us. Cars and trucks parked past our house and out of town. You could hear everything from here, four blocks from the tent. Mother tied on a fresh apron, and we sat out on our front porch, hearing the gospel quartette, four high sopranos in some very close harmony, backed up by a blare of trumpets. And they could belt out a hymn:

Don’t give me no newfangled religion,

Slick as a Cadillac’s fin;

Just give me that old-time religion

And the way things was back then.

Mother sighed from the porch swing.

Then Gypsy Piggott climbed onto his pulpit. They had a dynamite speaker system. The whole county could stay home and hear every word. His fist on the Bible was like an earth tremor. That collection plate rang like an alarm bell.

He didn’t mince words either. He had us sinners in the fiery pit before you knew where you were. We were all on the wrong path, and Gypsy Piggott knew where it led. Liquor and bad women were mentioned. His language was pretty rough, and he had no grammar to speak of.

Mother sent Ruth Ann into the house, for all the good that would do. “It’s what people want around here,” Phyllis said. “That’s what they’re like. Why are we even here? Nobody’ll want a real church. I hate this podunk town.”

*  *  *

Late that night I was jolted awake. It had to be midnight when Mrs. Dowdel’s screen door banged two or three times. Feet scuffled on her back porch.

My window looked down on her place. Moonlight was slick on her tar-paper roof. Yellow light fell from the kitchen windows across her porch floor.

Stuff began to fly off the porch and bounce in her yard. Suitcases? Trumpet cases? More came. White moths seemed to flutter across the grass, but it might have been sheet music.

I couldn’t see how many people were on the porch. But it was Mrs. Dowdel who barged through them and outside. She wore a nightgown the size of the revival tent. Cold moonlight hit her white hair loose in the night breeze. She held something high and poured from it onto the ground.

“‘WINE IS A MOCKER, STRONG DRINK IS RAGING,’” she bellowed into the night. “Proverbs. 20:1. You could look it up. I don’t have hard liquor in my house. It goes, and so do you.”

She seemed to pour strong drink out on the grass. Now she hauled off and threw the bottle. She had an arm on her. The bottle glinted in moonlight, hit her cobhouse roof, and rolled off.

“Now, now, Mrs. Dowdel,” a voice said, “calm yourself. ‘A man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.’ Ecclesiastes. 8:15.”

I’d have known that voice in the fiery pit. It was the Texas Tornado, Delmer “Gypsy” Piggott. Now I could hear Mother and Dad stirring around in their room.

My nose was flat to screen wire. “GET OFF MY PLACE,” Mrs. Dowdel bellowed, “and take these . . . sopranos with you. Trumpets, strumpets—everybody out.”

More shoe-scuffling came from the porch, and the peck of high heels. A sob and some squealing. The gospel quartette milled.

“You’v...

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