A Long Way from Chicago

by Richard Peck

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Chapter 3 Summary

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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 Puss Chapman. Inside, "the oldest person [the children have] ever seen" greets them all with petulant complaints. Grandma bustles about, preparing a meal of catfish, and it becomes evident that she comes here regularly to tend to the old woman's needs. Although Aunt Puss's memory is fading, she has vivid memories of the past. She reveals to Joey and Mary Alice that when their grandmother was their age, she had been a terror and had been "throwed...out of school" for pulling an audacious prank. Aunt Puss had offered Grandma employment in exchange for food and a pallet in the attic. Though the arrangement had not been particularly generous, Joey understands that Grandma is appreciative and is taking care of Aunt Puss in her old age.

Joey and Mary Alice are exhausted by the time they finally get back home, but Grandma has big plans for the evening. Telling Joey to "get down every platter [she] own[s]," she solicits their assistance in preparing a huge feast: "catfish fried in long pans with...potatoes and onions at the other end, popping in the grease." She then...

(This entire section contains 781 words.)

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has the children help her lug everything out to the right-of-way by the railroad tracks. She arranges everything on her card table, set up on the gravel. Out of the darkness, "hollow-eyed" drifters appear and gather around in silent gratefulness to share the bounty she offers.

The sheriff arrives and threatens to arrest Grandma, declaring, "We don't want to feed these loafers...we want 'em out of town." He calls her "a one-woman crime wave" and lists her transgressions, which include trespassing on private property, poaching fish, and stealing his boat. Grandma is unruffled, however, and smoothly reminds the sheriff of his own hypocritical foibles, not the least of which are his use of fish traps and his indecorous behavior at the Rod & Gun Club. Knowing he is beaten, the sheriff retreats. The drifters, who had been ready to rise in Grandma's defense, slip silently back into the night. Every morsel has been eaten, and Grandma hums softly as she and the children take the table and the platters back home "under a silver-dollar moon."

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