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. Each summer she demonstrates her respect for neighbors as she protects the innocent from manipulation, adds credence to farfetched tales, feeds the down-and-out, and switches her entry for her opponent's entry at the county fair so a down-trodden man might triumph in one area of his life.