A Long Way from Chicago is a humorous story about Joey and Mary Alice Dowdel's annual summer visits to their gun-toting Grandma Dowdel's home in a sleepy Illinois town between 1929 and 1935, the years of the Great Depression.
It was always August when we spent a week with our grandma. I was Joey then, not Joe: Joey Dowdel, and my sister was Mary Alice. In our first visits we were still just kids, so we could hardly see her town because of Grandma. She was so big, and the town was so small. She was old too, or so we thought—old as the hills. And tough? She was tough as an old boot, or so we thought. As the years went by, though, Mary Alice and I grew up, and though Grandma never changed, we'd seem to see a different woman every summer.
Each chapter, one per summer visit, is packed with new adventure, whether it is encountering their first corpse, flying at the county fair, winning first prize in a dancing contest, or learning to drive.
Grandma Dowdel is an intimidating woman of large proportions, and Joey is never certain how he should react to her antics. Mary Alice, on the other hand, seems to gain an intuitive ability to understand Grandma Dowdel's eccentric persona. Although Grandma Dowdel refuses to involve herself in the life of the community and says she minds her own business, her grandchildren soon learn that she cares about the people in her community in spite of what she says....
(The entire section is 302 words.)
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Prologue and Chapter 1 Summary
Joey Dowdel and his sister Mary Alice spend a week in August with their Grandma every year. The two are "just kids" at the time of their first few visits, but though Grandma remains constant, their perception of her changes as they grow up.
Chapter 1: "Shotgun Cheatham's Last Night Above Ground—1929"
Joey is nine and Mary Alice is seven the first time they go to stay with Grandma Dowdel. Their parents put them on the Wabash Railroad's Blue Bird, which leaves Chicago's Dearborn Station bound for St. Louis. Somewhere in between those two points, Grandma lives in the last house of one of the many small towns lying along the tracks. Mary Alice hates the place because at Grandma's, one has to go outside to use the bathroom, and there is never anything to do.
Joey and Mary Alice often stroll "uptown," which is a short block of brick buildings—a bank, insurance agency, store, and The Coffee Pot Cafe. It is during the height of Prohibition, and though there are a few automobiles, most farmers come to town on horse-drawn wagons. Things are definitely slow in Grandma's town—until the burial of Shotgun Cheatham.
Shotgun Cheatham was "just an old reprobate who lived poor and died broke," and he might have been buried in the same obscurity in which he lived had it not been for his distinctive name. A big city newspaper notices Shotgun's obituary in a local newspaper and sends a reporter to Grandma's small town in search of a story. Rumors abound at the Coffee Pot Cafe, as townspeople welcome the hapless investigator and vie to tell all they know about the deceased; most of their tales are exaggerations. Mrs. Effie Wilcox, "a real old, humped-over lady with buck teeth," tells the most outrageous whoppers of all, until Grandma has her say.
The reporter, going door-to-door in search of more information, comes out to Grandma's house. Joey and Mary Alice are astounded when their not particularly sociable grandmother regales him with a tale about how Shotgun Cheatham was a decorated Civil War veteran who had broken the heart of Effie Wilcox in his glory days. To the further astonishment of the children, Grandma announces that, rather than allow the deceased to go to his grave unrecognized, she will host a wake for the him, right in her own front room.
At Grandma's direction, Shotgun Cheatham's body is brought to her house, where he...
(The entire section is 680 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary
Chapter 2: "The Mouse in the Milk—1930"
When Joey and Mary Alice are sent to Grandma Dowdel's for the second year in a row, they begin to see that this is going to be an annual event. Mary Alice in particular is not happy about this and "pitch[es] a fit." Having no choice, however, the children dutifully go. As they sit in Grandma's house one long, uneventful evening soon after their arrival, they hear a horse come by; it stops briefly, then gallops off. Moments later, there is a flash of light and a deafening explosion. Grandma goes out to investigate and discovers that her mailbox has been blown "sky high." Surveying the ruin, she mutters an ominous word: "Cowgills."
During breakfast the next morning, Mrs. Effie Wilcox comes to the door, asking to use Grandma's privy. The one at her house has been wrenched from its foundation and flung into the yard by vandals. Grandma gives her permission, then settles back into her chair, again muttering thoughtfully, "Cowgills."
Joey and Mary Alice find Grandma's Winchester Model 21 prominently displayed on the kitchen table next to a box of shells when they come down for breakfast the next morning. Grandma herself is talking to Ernie Cowgill, a hulking, dim-witted sixteen-year-old whose family runs the local dairy. Ernie has come to deliver milk, and Grandma complains to him that she found a dead mouse in one of the bottles delivered the day before. She then mentions to Ernie that she will not need anything the next day, as she will be going away.
The children know that Grandma is telling another one of her whoppers. When Joey asks what the shotgun is for, she responds cryptically, "Bait." Later that day, she catches a "good-sized mouse" in a trap, slips the grisly body into an empty bottle, then covers it with milk. After supper, when night falls, Grandma locks the door and will not allow the children to turn on the lights. The children know that some plot is afoot, but Grandma offers no explanation. All they can do is sit with her in the darkness and wait.
Much later, there is a noise outside and then the sound of someone slicing through the screen door with a file. Whispering to Joey and Mary Alice to stay behind her, Grandma creeps over to the kitchen, strikes a match, and touches it to something in her hand. She rolls the object into the kitchen, and a few seconds later, the room erupts in sound and light. Joey turns on the...
(The entire section is 697 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
Chapter 3: "A One-Woman Crime Wave—1931"
The Great Depression is in full swing when Joey and Mary Alice make their annual visit to Grandma's in 1931. Droves of men are riding the rails in search of sustenance and work, and when the children arrive in Grandma's town, they see a sign on the station platform that reads, "DRIFTERS KEEP MOVING—THIS MEANS YOU!" Grandma's house is the last one in town, close to the Wabash tracks. At night, the children can hear the sounds "of shuffling boots and sometimes a voice," as law enforcement officers carrying shotguns keep the drifters moving along so that they do not loiter and beg for food around town.
One morning, Grandma announces to Joey and Mary Alice that they are going fishing. She shoulders a gunnysack of putrid-smelling cheese-bait, hands Joey a hamper of picnic supplies to carry, and leads them on a long hike to Salt Creek. When the three of them come to a barbed-wire fence with a "NO TRESPASSING" sign tacked on it, Grandma somehow manages to shimmy under it, and she instructs the children to do the same. The arduous hike continues, until, at the creek bottom, Grandma pulls a decrepit rowboat out of a tangle of vines and whispers to the children to "climb aboard."
With amazing facility, Grandma rows out into the creek and upstream along the bank. At a predetermined point she stops, searches, then withdraws from the water a large orange crate filled with writhing catfish. Aghast, Joey, the son of a fisherman, asks Grandma, "...is trapping fish legal in this state?" She responds, "If it was...we wouldn't have to be so quiet."
The trap apparently does not belong to Grandma, but she replenishes the bait and resets it. As the trio heads back with their stolen catch, they hear raucous singing coming from around a bend in the creek. A group of half-naked, drunken men are carousing on the porch of the creekside Rod & Gun Club. When Grandma recognizes some of the town's most prominent citizens among the inebriated partiers, she brazenly rows right past them instead of trying to remain undetected as the children would expect. The sheriff, who is part of the debauched group, calls out, "Stop in the name of the law!" but Grandma calmly continues rowing. He cannot pursue them, because they have his boat!
On their way home, Grandma, Joey, and Mary Alice stop at an old, ruined dwelling, the home of an ancient lady known as Aunt...
(The entire section is 780 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
Chapter 4: "The Day of Judgment—1932"
By 1932, Joey and Mary Alice realize that they actually look forward to their annual visits with Grandma. On their first morning there this year, they awaken to find Grandma busily at work in the kitchen, making her famous gooseberry pies. Pompous Mrs. L. J. Weidenbach drops by, with a clear purpose in mind. She wants Grandma to enter one of her renowned pies in competition at the upcoming county fair, to give their "small community" the opportunity to "make its mark."
Ordinarily, Mrs. Weidenbach's own bread-and-butter pickles take first prize at the contest, but this year, in the midst of the Depression, negative public feeling is running high against the bankers. Mr. Weidenbach wants to keep a low profile until times are better, so he has asked his wife not to enter her pickles at the fair this year. Mrs. Weidenbach is determined that the community should have a good showing, however. She has come to try to convince Grandma to enter one of her pies instead. Grandma relents when Mrs. Weidenbach agrees to drive her and the children to the fair on prize day in her Hupmobile.
A flurry of activity ensues as Grandma and the children bake countless pies in search of one worthy of a blue ribbon at the county fair. When the big day finally comes, Joey and Mary Alice are dumbfounded to see their normally plainly-clothed grandmother all decked out in a ready-made dress covered with flowers and a wide-brimmed hat decorated with blue ribbon to match. When they arrive at the fair, Grandma insists that they explore the grounds before going to the culinary competition. Joey, whose hero is Charles A. Lindbergh, is particularly captivated by a biplane that awaits in an open field. The pilot, Barnie Buchanan, will take passengers for a ride for the exorbitant fee of seventy-five cents, but he is offering to take every blue-ribbon winner up for free.
Joey is filled with hope that Grandma will win first prize and let him have her plane ride "because she [is] too old and too big" to go up herself. When they arrive at the Domestic Sciences tent to enter her gooseberry pie, however, they find another "very nice-looking entry" already on the table....
(The entire section is 771 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
Chapter 5: "The Phantom Brakeman—1933"
It is 1933, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the nation's new president. Shirley Temple is the new entertainment sensation, and Mary Alice, like every other girl in America, is learning to tap dance in imitation of the child star. Joey is thirteen, a teenager at last. He likes to be called Joe now, not Joey.
During their annual trip to Grandma's, Joe and Mary Alice go down to the Coffee Pot Cafe one day to enjoy some Nehi sodas. Mary Alice befriends Vandalia Eubanks, a skinny, pale seventeen-year-old who works there as a waitress. While they are talking, the girl's mother comes in and demands her daughter's wages. Later, Mary Alice tells Joe that Vandalia's mother is like a jailer and wants to rule her daughter's life.
Back at home, the children help Grandma with the laborious process of making homemade soap. As darkness falls, Grandma suddenly looks up from the steaming pot of lye she is stirring and peruses the skyline where the road and the Wabash tracks seem to meet. She relates the tale of a terrible accident involving a freight train and a train full of firefighters that occurred on the tracks back in 1871. Legend has it that the brakeman of the freight train and both engineers were killed; the ghost of the brakeman still appears sometimes, wandering along the tracks in the early evening, when day turns into night.
That night, Joe is awakened by a snuffling sound that seems to come from Mary Alice's room. Getting up to investigate, he knocks on the door, only to be told by his sister that she is hiding a puppy in there. Joe does not quite believe this, but he is too tired to argue. He returns to bed.
Mary Alice appears at breakfast the next morning looking "perky and innocent," but when Grandma's back is turned, she slips a biscuit and a sausage patty into her shirt. She tries to be secretive about it, but as she returns to her room when the meal is over, Grandma studies her with a long look. Later that morning, when they are again all outside working on the next step in the soap-making process, Mrs. Eubanks comes roaring up in her buckboard and accuses Mary Alice of sheltering Vandalia, who has run away. When she demands to be allowed to search the house, Grandma replies, "If you set a foot over that doorsill, I'll wring your red neck."
Around noon, Joe is out by the privy when he is accosted by a middle-aged man...
(The entire section is 751 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
Chapter 6: "Things With Wings—1934"
Grandma is at the depot when Joe and Mary Alice arrive this year, but she has not come to meet them. Instead, she is seeing somebody off. Mrs. Effie Wilcox, her "sworn enemy," is moving away because the bank has foreclosed on her house. That day at noon dinner, the children regale their grandmother with the exciting news about the killing of the notorious John Dillinger back in Chicago. Grandma is uncharacteristically subdued, however, and Mary Alice acutely observes, "Grandma's missing Mrs. Wilcox."
In the evening, Grandma takes the children to the park to see a picture show. The movie being shown is "a Dracula," and its intensity leaves everyone a little spooked. On the walk back in the darkness, Grandma shies away from the shadows and pointedly latches the screen door when they get home. Joe and Mary Alice wonder if she is trying to scare them, but all she says is, "Movies is all pretend...make something seem real, and people will believe it."
The next morning, Joe tells Grandma that he needs two dollars for Ray Veech, who works at the garage uptown and has promised to teach him to drive. Grandma brushes off his request, telling Joe that he does not have time for driving lessons because she needs him and Mary Alice to search in the attic for items to sell at the church rummage sale. Dutifully, the children plow through steamer trunks of miscellaneous items stored in the cobweb-filled room. At Grandma's request, they bring down a stovepipe hat that had belonged to a visiting preacher, and a faded quilt that had been pieced together by her Aunt Josie.
When Grandma arrives with Joe and Mary Alice at the rummage sale, she turns over her offerings, then sits back to watch the ladies gathered around the tables of goods. There is a commotion at one of the tables. Mrs. Earl Askew, the lady in charge, comes over to Grandma and whispers that Mrs. L. J. Weidenbach, the banker's wife, has offered the unheard-of sum of fifteen dollars for the stovepipe hat Grandma has donated. Mrs. Askew just wants to be sure that Grandma really wants to part with the valuable item, but Grandma says it does not belong to her. She claims that the hat is something Effie Wilcox had found in her house back when she moved in. She had subsequently thrown it away "when the bank run her out of town."
A few moments later, a scuffle begins between Mrs. Askew and...
(The entire section is 810 words.)
Chapters 7-8 Summary
Chapter 7: "Centennial Summer—1935"
On Joe and Mary Alice's last annual summer visit to Grandma Dowdel's, the town is in the midst of a gala celebration commemorating "A Century of Progress." Although Grandma feigns disinterest, she tells the children that there will be a talent show that they just might "look in on" and a parade that they can view from the porch.
Grandma sends her grandchildren up into the attic again, this time to search for appropriate old-time attire for all of them to wear to the festivities. Mary Alice discovers a lovely white dress with seed pearls and a bustle; she also finds a dandy black waistcoat with drainpipe pants, a string tie, and a derby hat. She convinces Joe to wear the suit while she tries on the dress. When the two go to show Grandma, she is moved to tears. Grandma had been married in the dress. When she sees the children, she says with uncharacteristic emotion, "I thought it was me and Dowdel on our wedding day."
At breakfast, Mrs. L. J. Weidenbach stops by to ask Grandma to help out with the Ladies' Hospitality Committee for the Centennial Celebration. Mrs. Weidenbach heads the committee, but she cannot help out because she will be busy campaigning for her daddy to secure the honor of "Oldest Settler" and for her nephew to win the talent show. Rightfully offended at the woman's audacity, Grandma declines. Mrs. Weidenbach leaves, defeated, but Joe knows that the interaction is not over yet.
Later, Joe sees Mary Alice and Grandma whispering conspiratorially. He does not see much of his sister for the next few days. During that time, Grandma takes Joe far out into the country to find Old Uncle Grady Griswold, who, if he is still alive, would be a hundred and three years old. The ancient codger is indeed living, and Grandma asks his wife, Aunt Mae, if she can "borrow" him for the day on Saturday. Uncle Grady will bring his old army uniform and saber, which date all the way back to the Mexican War.
The talent show is held on the first night of the Centennial Celebration. Grandma and Joe go down to the park to see it, but Mary Alice is nowhere to be found. After a number of mediocre presentations, Mrs. Weidenbach's nephew comes up, made up ridiculously with artificial freckles and wearing "old-time britches," to recite a poem. His performance is truly ludicrous, but the audience, egged-on by the banker's wife, responds wildly. If...
(The entire section is 817 words.)