A Long Way From Chicago Summary

Richard Peck

A Long Way From Chicago

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A Long Way From Chicago Summary

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Richard Peck’s A Long Way from Chicago is a short story cycle that makes up a novel. This 1999 Newbery Honor award-winning work was followed by a sequel, A Year Down Yonder, an award winner as well with a Newbery Medal for children’s literature two years later. A Long Way from Chicago tells of the small town life. An old man looks back at the annual trips he made to his grandmother’s house in a rural part of Illinois during the depression era from his home in the Chicago of Al Capone and Bugs Moran. At the beginning of the book, Joey is nine years old and his sister, Mary Alice, is seven. They find out that they will be visiting their grandmother, “Grandma Dowdel,” for a week in August every year. The tale then unfolds in a series of short stories, or vignettes, eight in total, that cover summers from 1929 to 1935 and an additional story for 1942.

The opening segment, “Shotgun Cheatham’s Last Night Above Ground – 1929,” was first published in a collection titled Twelve Shots: Stories About Guns in 1997. This is the first summer Joey and Mary Alice go to stay with their grandmother unaccompanied. Shotgun Cheatham has just died and Grandma Dowdel conducts an open house for him. Grandma lies to a reporter about Shotgun, saying he was a war hero. Effie Wilcox, Grandma’s nemesis, is in attendance as well. Shortly, the coffin begins to move and Grandma shoots it with a shotgun. Both Effie and the reporter flee. It turns out it was a cat that caused the curtain over the coffin to move. At this point in the novel, it becomes abundantly clear that Grandma Dowdel knows how to lie and manipulate to get the best of people who cross her path.

The next summer, recounted in “The Mouse in the Milk – 1930,” finds boys from the Cowgill family terrorizing the town. They blow up Grandma’s mailbox and Effie Wilcox’s outhouse. Grandma sets the boys up for a fall by letting them know that she will not be at home for her next milk delivery from their father’s business. She knows that they will use the opportunity for some sort of mischief. She lies in wait that evening with the lights off waiting for them to try to steal something from her. When she catches them in the act, she dispatches Joey to fetch their parents. Grandma informs Mr. Cowgill that if he cannot get his boys to control their behavior, she will announce to everyone that there was a mouse in her milk, thus ruining Mr. Cowgill’s business.

“A One-Woman Crime Wave – 1931” finds Grandma using a boat she stole from the sheriff to catch fish in order to help some drifters. She is using illegal traps to catch catfish from a lake. Grandma carries this out under the noses of some deputies who are drunk and do not grasp what is going on. The 1932 entry in the series, “The Day of Judgment,” focuses on a pie-baking contest in the town. The prize is the honor of winning and a ride in a biplane. Grandma’s competition is Rupert Pennypacker. Grandma manages to swap the names on their pies just before the judging takes place, but it backfires, and Rupert is the winner with Grandma’s pie. She does, however, find a way to obtain a biplane ride for her grandson.

Episodic memories of summers with Grandma Dowdel continue through subsequent stories. “The Phantom Brakeman – 1933” finds Grandma helping lovers Vandalia Eubanks and Junior Stubbs run away together as she uses a ghost story. It also includes Mary Alice’s fascination with the film star Shirley Temple. “Things with Wings – 1934” finds Joey infatuated with a new type of car called the Hudson Terraplane 8. Grandma, meanwhile, uses rumors involving Abraham Lincoln to convince the banker, Mr. Weidenbach, to allow Effie Wilcox to return to her home, which has been foreclosed on.

The story for 1935 is “Centennial Summer,” which as suggested by the title, centers around a celebration that takes place in the town every century. Here, Grandma becomes involved in a confrontation with Mrs. Weidenbach over whose family is the most talented in the town and who the county’s oldest living veteran might be. The final installment jumps ahead several years and is titled “The Troop Train – 1942.” Due to his love of airplanes, Joey decides to join the army air corps. Grandma receives a telegram from him informing her that he will be passing through her town. As his train passes Grandma’s house, he finds that it is well lit up and that Grandma is waving as each train car goes by. Joey waves back at her as his car passes on his way to fight in World War II.

Publishers Weekly praised A Long Way from Chicago saying, “Readers will be eager to join the trio of Grandma, Joey, and Mary Alice on such escapades as preparing an impressive funeral for Shotgun Cheatham, catching fish from a stolen boat and arranging the elopement of Vandalia Eubanks and Junior Stubbs. Like Grandma Dowdel’s prize-winning gooseberry pie, this satire on small-town etiquette is fresh, warm and anything but ordinary.”