A Long Way from Chicago

by Richard Peck

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Themes and Characters

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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. He is certain he will be bored at Grandma Dowdel's. Still he is a child who tends to conform, not willing to take risks. The first couple of summers he is easily entertained with strolls to the small business district of town where he and Mary Alice fish their hands around in the icy waters of the pop cooler for a Nehi at The Coffee Pot. His attitude soon changes with the prospects of seeing his first corpse. Joey's respect for Grandma grows with the passing summers, and his last two summers he has a growing fascination with airplanes and cars. Joey realizes the deep love and admiration he has for Grandma Dowdel, and she for him, in the last chapter when his troop train passes by her home in the middle of the night in 1942. He had sent her a telegram to tell her he would be coming through, and when the train arrived every light in her house was on, and she stood on the porch waving as the entire train passed by.

Mary Alice is seven at the time of her first visit to Grandma Dowdel's. She is reluctant to go and upset that she cannot take her two best friends along. She is certain their parents are dumping them on Grandma so they can go fishing for the week...

(This entire section contains 916 words.)

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in Wisconsin without the children. Mary Alice is more outgoing than Joey and quickly takes Grandma Dowdel's idiosyncrasies in stride, even taking delight in conspiring to prevent Mrs. L. J. Weidenbach and company from winning all the best prizes at the community talent show. She is terrorized by the old tomcat living in the cobhouse. By their fourth summer her attitude about going has changed, and she has come to a conclusion about Grandma: "I don't think Grandma's a very good influence on us." She had decided her best friends would not understand Grandma, and so no longer insisted she be allowed to take them to meet her. She and Joey "weren't so sure Mother and Dad would either. Since we still dragged our heels about going, they didn't notice we looked forward to the trip." Mary Alice develops into a young lady who has given up tap dancing for ballroom dancing, become a co-conspirator with Grandma, and developed enough grace to teach Roy Veech, teenage attendant at Veech's Gas and Oil, to dance. They enter and win the talent contest. She becomes a self-assured young lady.

Grandma Dowdel is larger than life, both metaphorically and physically. She welcomes her grandchildren each August without fanfare and seemingly makes no changes in her routine to accommodate or entertain them. She seems to be a gruff, no-nonsense woman who expects people to mind their own business while she minds hers. Under that exterior beats a heart that will not tolerate an outsider slandering the name of one of their recently deceased townsfolk, nor thugs who blow up mailboxes and knock over Mrs. Wilcox's privy, nor bankers foreclosing on widows, nor a sheriff who runs hungry homeless men out of town. Grandma Dowdel brandishes her own form of justice to right the world. Although she never changes over the course of seven summers, her grandchildren change and see her differently.

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