A Long Way from Chicago is a coming of age novel. Joey Dowdel grows from a nine-year-old child who is intimidated by Grandma Dowdel to a young man of fifteen who has gained respect and love for his grandmother. As a young child he took Grandma at face value, but as the summers progressed, a more mature Joey grows in his understanding of human nature and insight in respect to Grandma Dowdel and who she really is.
The themes of truth, justice, and ethics— Grandma Dowdel-style—permeate each chapter. Although Grandma says she does not care about her neighbors, her actions speak otherwise as she rights wrongs using somewhat unorthodox methods.
A sense of family and place surfaces as a theme in the story as Joey, Mary Alice, and Grandma join together to work toward common goals. A sense of loyalty to each other develops. The children help Grandma Dowdel restore honor to Shotgun Cheatham, assure punishment for the mean-spirited Cowboys who terrorize elderly women living alone, rescue a young woman who is dominated and abused by her mother, and feed hungry men riding the rails looking for work because of the depression.
Another theme developed by Peck is learning to see beyond first impressions of people. Joey learns that Grandma Dowdel is really not the gruff, uncaring woman she would have him and the community believe she is. He and Mary Alice learn not to take people at face value. It is worthwhile to get to know someone, to really know that other person. Looking beneath the surface they gain insight and personal involvement in the lives of others. Joey and Mary Alice learn first hand the transformations that take place in their own lives and others when they are involved in good deeds that improve the lot of neighbors and strangers. They experience the deep satisfaction that results from treating others as you would have them treat you, offering respect, comfort, thanks, and a cold drink to the thirsty. Their humanity has increased.
At the beginning of A Long Way from Chicago, nine-year-old Joey Dowdel calls himself Joey, not Joe. Joey thinks of himself as somewhat sophisticated. After all he lives in Chicago, the city of Al Capone, cars, movie theaters, and modern conveniences....
(The entire section is 916 words.)