A Depression-era small town in southern Illinois serves as the backdrop for A Long Way from Chicago. The effects of the Depression are clearly evidenced in the frugal ways of the townspeople and in Peck's depiction of a line at the store waiting for the day-old bread to go on sale at half price. At one point the town refuses to allow men looking for work to linger in town. Chicagobred Joey and Mary Alice make the train trip to this small town each summer in August for a week's visit with Grandma Dowdel. Joey and Mary Alice leave modern conveniences behind when they go to Grandma's. Her house is the last at the edge of town, just across the line into the county, with the Wabash Railroads' tracks running at the back of her property. There is a path to the privy and nearby is the cobhouse, "a tumbledown shed full of stuff left there in Grandpa Dowdel's time. A big old snaggle-toothed tomcat lived in the cobhouse, and as quick as you'd come out of the privy, he'd jump at you. Mary Alice hated that." A pump in the kitchen draws water from the well, milk is delivered by the Cowgill boys driving a horse and delivery wagon, a tug on a chain turns on the ceiling light in the kitchen, food cooks or bakes on a corncob fed stove, and screens on doors and windows provide air conditioning. Grandma wears aprons over her wash dresses and only wears men's pants under her skirts for tasks like hiking and fishing.
Grandma Dowdel's town is small—a bank, an insurance...
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A Long Way from Chicago is told from the viewpoint of elderly Joe Dowdel, in a flashback, as he remembers those week-long summer vacations spent with his Grandma Dowdel at her home in a little southern Illinois town. Peck's use of language and dialogue are specific to small-town life and enliven the story. His use of humorous situations and imagery provides lots of chuckles and laughs as the reader envisions Grandma Dowdel in her getups for hiking and fishing, Shotgun Cheatham's corpse laid out in her parlor and the ensuing wake, and fair-goers trying to push, pull, and lift her great bulk into the biplane.
The novel's episodic chapter format invites the reader to enjoy each as a short story, or read them together for a hilarious good time.
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A Long Way from Chicago offers a character portrait of a unique family member. Many students have unique, unorthodox, or idiosyncratic relatives. Peck's Grandma Dowdel is a lovable but definitely different kind of grandmother. Readers may compare their own relationships with older adults with the relationship between Joey and Mary Alice with their Grandma. Understanding that Grandma Dowdel does not conform may help readers understand there is no one pattern for people to fit. Everyone is unique.
At the beginning of the story, Mary Alice believes she and Joey are being dumped off on Grandma. This may be a real concern for young people today. Parents and caregivers may give the impression they do not have the time or inclination to be bothered by kids and actually dump them on someone else. Statistics support the fact that grandparents are the head of more and more families this country.
The young woman working in the Coffee Cup Cafe is abused by her mother, and Mary Alice steps in to right the wrong, much like Grandma Dowdel would do. Abuse is very prevalent today. Some readers may be the victim of abuse at the hands of parents, relatives, or bullies. Perhaps they can benefit from Grandma Dowdel's attitude towards the Cowgill boys when they try to bully and terrorize elderly women. Perhaps they, like the young woman, can find someone in whom they can confide and obtain help.
The townspeople are prejudiced towards the homeless...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Grandma Dowdel lies to the reporter from the city about Shotgun Cheatham. Can her lie be justified? Why does she lie? Is it ever okay to lie? Explain your answer.
2. The last sentence of "Shotgun Cheatham's Last Night Above Ground" mentions different kinds of truth. Read the last paragraph and discuss what Peck means in the last sentence. Is this true today?
3. In "The Mouse in the Milk," Grandma lies again. Do you see a pattern here? What is she teaching her grandchildren with this kind of behavior?
4. Mr. Cowgill whips his boys after Grandma catches them in her kitchen intending to steal her gun. How do you feel about that? How do your parents punish you when you are deserving?
5. In "A One-Woman Crime Wave" Grandma does several things that the sheriff interprets as breaking the law. List them. Is this the first time? How do you know?
6. At the end of the chapter, "A Day of Judgment," Joey asks Grandma some questions and makes a confession. Discuss her response. If she switched pies to win and did not win, then what does she mean? Why did she switch pies?
7. Was it wrong for the men at the Piatt County Rod & Gun Club to be drinking? How did Grandma use their embarrassment to her advantage?
8. Why does Alice tell Joey that she does not think Grandma is a good influence on them? Who has a strong influence in your life? Why does that person have influence in your life?...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Draw a map and a picture of Grandma Dowdel's southern Illinois town.
2. Grandma referred to the news reporter as being "citified." Do you think you are "citified"? Is she stereotyping the reporter? Are there good and bad stereotypes? Explain.
3. Choose one of the episodes and write it as a script. Choose classmates to help act it out. Video tape your production to share with others.
4. Create a wordless book by making one picture for each chapter to illustrate the events in the chapter. You may draw, paint, create collages, etc. The choice of medium and artistic style is yours.
5. Create one additional summer vacation with Grandma Dowdel. Mary Alice is now fourteen and Joey is sixteen. What adventure would Grandma have planned for them this time? You could write the chapter or record an oral chapter on audio tape.
6. The town saloon had closed during the Temperance movement. Research this movement and share your information.
7. A Long Way from Chicago is set during the Great Depression. What was the Great Depression? How were people affected? Was it just in the United States? If not, how were people in other parts of the world affected? Do some research. Prepare interview questions and interview several people who lived during the Great Depression. Capture the interviews on audio or video tape to include with your report and share.
8. Peck used an episodic chapter structure...
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The Ghost Belonged to Me has been taped on audio cassette by Live Oak Media (1976). Don't Look and It Won't Hurt was made into a filmstrip with cassette by Random House. Remembering the Good Times has been read by Richard Peck and taped on audio cassette by Listening Library (1987).
Television movies based on Peck's novels include: Child of Glass (based on The Ghost Belonged to Me), Walt Disney Productions, 1979; Father Figure, Time-Life Productions, 1980; and Are You in the House Alone? CBS, 1997.
Nearly all of Peck's novels focus on young people growing up and facing the obstacles of youth. Many of his novels include an older or elderly adult, as does A Long Way from Chicago. He once commented that when writing for young people, it is important to include the wisdom of people who are at the "other end of life." Readers can choose from the list of books in the bibliography and find many of the same themes from A Long Way to Chicago addressed in them. Like Joey, the characters in Lost in Cyberspace and The Great Interactive Dream Machine experience the fulfillment of wishes.
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For Further Reference
Gallo, Donald R. Presenting Richard Peck. Twayne, 1989.
Mercier, Jean F. "PW Interviews: Richard Peck," Publishers Weekly (March 14, 1980). Peck, Richard. "Autobiography Feature: Richard Peck," Something about the Author, Vol. 110. Edited by Alan Hedblad. Gale Group, 2000, pp. 159-70. Peck writes about himself and his work in an essay illustrated with photographs.
"Richard Peck." In Fifth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators. Edited by Sally Holmes Holtze. H. W. Wilson Co., 1983.
"Richard Peck." In Children's Literature Review, Vol. 15. Edited by Gerard J. Senick. Gale, 1988, pp. 146-66.
"Richard Peck." In Authors & Illustrators for Young Adults, Vol. 24. Edited by Thomas McMahon. Gale, 1998, pp. 151-61. Coverage includes personal information, awards and honors, a comprehensive bibliography of Peck's writings, and an overview of his life and work.
Silvey, Anita, ed. Essay on Peck in Children's Books and Their Creators. Houghton, 1995, pp. 512-14.
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