BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck

Long Way from ChicagoTruly, one of the best ways to keep the kids happily quiet in the car is to share a story … and even better if it happens to be one of Richard Peck’s tall tales. Read by Ron McLarty, with just the right easy-going drawl, this 1999 Newbery Honor Book is hilarious fun … with great life lessons effortlessly tossed in by a true master storyteller. The adventures continue, by the way, in A Year Down Yonder, which won the 2001 Newbery Medal.

Every hot August from 1929 to 1935, Joey Dowdel and his sister, Mary Alice, are sent – most unwillingly at first – to visit their larger-than-life (literally!) grandmother who lives in the last house in a town somewhere between Chicago and St. Louis. Getting on in years, she’s still “tough as an old boot, or so we thought.” She won’t take nonsense from anyone, makes rules of her own, and will not let injustice lie.

Deemed old enough to travel alone at ages 9 and 7, respectively, Joey and Mary Alice board “the Wabash Railroad’s crack Blue Bird” to share some amazing adventures with the uncompromising Grandma Dowdel. Grandma makes sure that the local criminal gets the funeral he doesn’t deserve, by making sure the nosy out-of-town reporter gets his due scare-of-a-lifetime. As Joey and Mary Alice watch in awe, Grandma makes sure the Cowgill boys never bully their customers again, “return[ing] law and order to the town she claimed she didn’t give two hoots about.”

During the Great Depression, Grandma is the last person anyone would suspect whom drifters and the elderly could rely on for a meal in their direst time… but where there’s a need, Grandma is somehow there. She’ll secretly give up the blue ribbon for best pie just to make someone else happy. She’ll assist young lovers escape evil mothers, help her gossiping nemesis reclaim her home from the money-hungry bankers, and make sure the town’s oldest soldier gets one last good fight. Eccentric, powerful, and full of biting vinegar, Grandma Dowdel is not to be messed with. But as Joey and Mary Alice learn all too well, behind her gruffness is truly a caring, loving, nurturing heart always ready to give, without ever asking for anything in return.

The book’s final chapter – guaranteed to bring tears to any mother’s eyes – skips to 1942 when Joey. now all grown up as Joe, is on his way to be a “flier” in another war. “The years went by, and Mary Alice and I grew up, slower than we wanted to, faster than we realized.” Shipping out, the train goes right through Grandma’s town … and in the middle of the night, Grandma’s house is “lit up like a jack’o’-lantern,” and Grandma herself is “waving big at all the cars, hoping I’d see.”

So one good thing about being the driver up front: the kids can’t see all that weepy maternal soppiness from the back seat.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 1998


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