42 pages • 1 hour readRichard Peck
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Written by Richard Peck in 1998 and told as a series of related short stories, A Long Way From Chicago is a novel about two siblings and their adventures with their grandmother over the span of six summers from 1929 to 1935. The work was a Newbery Honor book in 1999, and its sequel, A Year Down Yonder, won the Newbery Medal for children’s literature in 2001. Richard Peck (1934-2018) was the award-winning American novelist of over 40 books for young readers, and his achievements include the Edgar Award (1977) and the Margaret Edwards Award (1990). Born and raised in Illinois, Peck received a bachelor’s degree in English from DePauw University and a master’s degree from Southern Illinois University. After teaching English at the high school and junior high levels, he left to pursue writing full time, and his debut novel, Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt, was published in 1971.
This guide follows the 2011 Puffin Books edition of A Long Way From Chicago.
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A Long Way From Chicago is told in the short story cycle format. Each chapter is a self-contained story that shares common settings, characters, and information with the others. The stories are told from the perspective of protagonist Joey Dowdel as he looks back on these events as an older man. The Prologue and final chapter both offer a distinct frame of reference that allows readers to distinguish between Joey as the narrator and Joey as a character in the stories. The chapters in between these two anchoring points take place during six consecutive summers in which Joey and his sister Mary Alice visit their grandmother and get a taste for how different country life is from their usual lifestyle in Chicago.
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In the first story, “Shotgun Cheathham’s Last Night Above Ground,” Joey, Mary Alice, and their grandmother convince the other residents of the small town that the recently deceased Shotgun Cheathham is a decorated war hero when he is actually nothing of the sort. Then, in the short story titled “The Mouse in the Milk,” the group teaches some bullies a lesson about how a person’s reputation is tied to everything they do. “A One-Woman Crime Wave” introduces the effects of the Great Depression on Grandma’s town and shows how she outsmarts local law enforcement in her attempts to help those in need.
Chapter 4, “The Day of Judgment,” takes the group to a county fair where Grandma and the kids learn the importance of honesty and of knowing when to lie. In “The Phantom Brakeman,” which is part ghost story and part romance, young love is helped along by Grandma, Joey, and a local legend. “Things With Wings” brings the Great Depression back into prominence with a rummage sale and Grandma’s fight to restore an old friend’s home. Finally, “Centennial Summer” shows the town on its 100th birthday and speaks to the troubles that arise from competition. Throughout all these stories, Joey and Mary Alice learn to value the importance of family, to appreciate people who live differently from them, and to respect and learn from those who know more than they do.
By Richard Peck