Book Review: A Season of Gifts by Richard Peck

December 29, 2009

Grandma Dowdel’s back, only this time she’s known as Mrs. Dowdel to the Methodist preacher’s family that just moved in next door. The family, which includes three children, has been relocated from Terre Haute, Indiana to take over what is to be a new Methodist church but what is now a run-down building with no windows, a deteriorating roof and no congregation in a small Illinois town.

As family members work to adjust to a new life, gruff old Mrs. Dowdel next door seems to know exactly what each needs. Bob, who tells the story, is the middle child on the verge of puberty. He’s the easy target of bullies and in need of confidence as well as friends. Phyllis, fourteen going on twenty, is appalled at having to start high school in a place where she knows no one. Her obsession with everything Elvis leads her to take up with an unsavory character and start lying to her parents about where she’s going and what she’s doing. Six-year-old Ruth Ann is starting first grade, and she’s searching for someone to look up to. The dad, of course, needs a congregation, and the mom needs help keeping them all functioning well.

Fans of A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder will be happy to read more about Grandmas Dowdel’s schemes to influence her small town and the family next door for the better. She’s just a gruff as ever, but older now. The gifts she bestows are not the kind you can wrap and put under a Christmas tree, but they are the kind no receiver would seek to return. Peck is a master of subtle storytelling, letting the reader reach conclusions about the characters along the way. He’s also superb at bringing bygone times to life, and in A Season of Gifts he deftly captures life in a small town during the late 1950s.

I read this book aloud to the whole family, which includes my husband and two teen daughters. We all loved it, something rare for the four of us with our different tastes in books. I highly recommend it for family reading as well as for children aged nine and up. Buy this book now, even though Christmas has just passed. Then pack it away with your Christmas decorations and be pleasantly surprised when you pull it out next year.