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When you pick up a book called A Long Way from Chicago, you probably expect it to take place in an exotic, faraway land. Maybe Florida—that's a pretty long way away from the City of Broad Shoulders. Or maybe Shanghai? Helsinki? Antarctica?
Or how about…Southern Illinois?
We know, we know. It's not as amazing sounding as a bunch of other places that are a long way from Chicago. In fact, Southern Illinois isn't really even all that far away from Chicago, at least in terms of miles.
But for Joey and Mary Alice Dowdel, who are sent down from their home in Chicago to spend a week hanging at Grandma Dowdel's place, it might as well be as far away and foreign as Mars City, Mars.
For one thing, Grandma Dowdel isn't your average "would-you-like-more-cookies-baby?" type of grammy. She's weird. She's short-tempered. And she breaks the law when she doesn't think the law is serving the greater good (which—spoiler—is most of the time).
And as Joey and Mary Alice spend more time kicking it with their rogue grandma, they continue to uncover layer after layer of eccentricity. Grandma Dowdel is kind of like an onion or an ogre in that way—but she's not green, and she doesn't make her grandkids cry.
Instead, she takes them on adventures. A Long Way from Chicago chronicles the week each August (from 1929 to 1935) that Joey and Mary Alice spend grammy-ing it up.
Author Richard Peck has written dozens of young adult books, and he brings his experience and awesome prose stylin' to this novel-in-stories (nabbing a Newbery Honor for his efforts). The book captures the hilarity that comes with spending time with oddball Grandma Dowdel. She may not be flashy or sugary sweet, but she takes the kids on plenty of missions to help the poor and desperate…and—oh, yeah—she also steals boats, shoots at cats, and helps her grandkids dress up like ghosts to scare some small-minded townsfolk.
Southern Illinois might not actually be a long way from Chicago…but we'd take a vacation with Grandma Dowdel over an all-expense-paid cruise through the Caribbean any day of the week.
What does a good person look like?
No, we're not asking what their actual faces look like…although—pro tip—the presence of a villainous mustache or a Cruella de Vil hairstyle is probably a good sign that you're not dealing with an angel.
But if we asked you to describe a good person, you'd probably say things like "he smiles a lot," "she's sweet to everyone," "he never lies," or "she never talks about people behind their backs."
Sure, these are all very good things. But meet Grandma Dowdel. She's unsmiling. She's not all sweetness and light. She lies like Pinocchio. She loves to gossip.
And she's also one of the best examples of a "good person" we can think of.
Here's the thing: Grandma Dowdel isn't afraid to lie, steal, and break the law if it means that she can feed a hungry old lady and half a dozen starving migrant workers. She's not above talking some smack behind a friend's back when that friend is being silly…but she's also not above doing everything in her power to make sure that friend gets to keep her house.
She doesn't grin from ear to ear, but she's deeply and truly kind to her grandkids and her buddies…and she's an awesome member of the community. She's not complimentary or even very polite, but she does save the reputation of a down-on-his-luck local from being dragged through the mud by big-city papers.
Basically, Grandma Dowdel makes it very clear that there's a huge, Mariana Trench-size gulf between being "nice" and being "good."
Our gal G. Dowdel ain't nice. But she's better than any dozen sugary-sweet townsfolk…because she stands up for what she thinks is right every time.
It doesn't hurt that she's hilarious even as she's busy being a do-gooder.
The Author's Vault
Want to learn more about Richard Peck's work (which includes books for both adults and children)? Check it out!
The Next Step
If you were craving Mary Alice's perspective throughout A Long Way from Chicago, you should read the sequel, A Year Down Yonder. It's all about Mary Alice going to stay with Grandma Dowdel for a year…without Joey there!
A Promising Start
In an interview, Richard Peck explains that he first wrote "Shotgun Cheatham's Last Night Above Ground" without an inkling that the story would grow into A Long Way from Chicago.
The Writer's POV
Richard Peck has written books for both children and adults, but he claims that YA novels are much harder to write than adult fiction.
The Importance of Words
Richard Peck takes a moment to talk about just why writing and reading are so important, so listen up.
If you've got four hours to spare, you can listen to the audio version of A Long Way from Chicago. Since it's told in short stories, each chunk will be manageable for a single sitting.
Up, Up, and Away!
The cover for A Long Way from Chicago shows one of Joey's most prized memories, the moment that he gets to go up in an airplane for the first time. Of course, he's waving to his beloved Grandma Dowdel and Mary Alice, who watch from below.
Man of the Hour
Wondering what author Richard Peck looks like? Check out this rather distinguished photograph.
The Passage of Time
Let's take a look back at author Richard Peck when he was a young man. He was quite the looker in his high school graduation photo.