A Long Way from Chicago

by Richard Peck

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Chapters 7-8 Summary

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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 crowd reaction is a criteria, the boy will certainly win.

There is one more entry in the contest, however, and it commences with the strains of a romantic ballroom dance played on a portable Victrola. An ethereal couple glides onto the semi-darkened stage, and the crowd catches its collective breath at the beauty of the scene. The female dancer is, of course, Mary Alice, in Grandma's wedding dress. Her partner is Ray Veech, whom she has painstakingly been teaching to dance. When the number is over, Grandma and Joe head for home; the winner of the competition is a foregone conclusion.

On Saturday, the Celebration closes with a big parade. On the first float, Mrs. Weidenbach sits with her old daddy, who is displayed "in full Civil War blue" under the tag, "Oldest Settler in the Community." As the line trundles by the gathered crowds, a second float cuts in directly behind her. It is Grandma's entry, featuring Mary Alice in her ball gown, holding up the loving cup for first place in the talent show, and Uncle Grady Griswold, brandishing his...

(This entire section contains 820 words.)

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sword under a sign proclaiming him to be "By Far the Oldest Settler in the Community." Mrs. Weidenbach, knowing that she has been outdone by Grandma once again, is fuming in the float ahead. When the parade is stopped by a passing train, her daddy and Uncle Grady trade insults and leap off their respective vehicles to engage in mortal combat. The parade ends with the spectacle of "two of the oldest men alive...brawling in the street."

Chapter 8: "The Troop Train—1942"

The years pass, and Mary Alice and Joe are all grown up now. There is a war on, and Joe joins up, hoping to finally realize his dream of flying. Before he can go to flight school, however, he must complete basic training at Camp Leonard Wood. Joe discovers that the train that will take him there will pass right through Grandma's town, and he notifies her by telegram.

The troop train is late and arrives at Grandma's an hour before dawn. From his position by the window, Joe sees Grandma's house "lit up like a jack-o'-lantern," and Grandma herself standing at the door, "waving big at all the cars, hoping [he'd] see." Joe waves back and continues waving long after the sight of her is gone, replaced "with darkness and long distance."

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