A Long Way from Chicago

by Richard Peck

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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 agency, Moore's Store, and the Coffee Pot Cafe. It is populated by some small-minded people like the banker who forecloses on Grandma Dowdel's enemy, forcing her out of her home, and the sheriff and townspeople who chase drifters out of town. Grandma always "claimed she didn't give two hoots" about the town or its people but each summer proves her claim false.

Literary Qualities

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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.

Social Sensitivity

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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...

(This entire section contains 412 words.)

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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 men who ride rails seeking work. Prejudice is the result of misunderstanding, lack of education about other people and their ways, or emanates from a mean spirit and selfishness. If readers identify areas of prejudice in themselves, they can find several instances where Joey and Mary Alice learned from Grandma Dowdel how to treat others with compassion. She came to the defense of Shotgun Cheatham's reputation, Mrs. Wilcox's dignity, Aunt Puss Chapman's material needs, helped rescue seventeen-year-old Vandalia from her abusive mother, and fed hungry people. When we do not know the circumstances surrounding a person's life, we might prejudge that person. Peck's characters show a better way to treat others.

Young people need and want truth, justice, and strong ethics as guides in life. Some of Grandma Dowdel's administration of these three may be a little suspect at times, but the reader will certainly know where she stands on every issue. Like Grandma, with a strong foundation, readers can take a stand when the situation deems it necessary.

For Further Reference

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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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