The title of the book, A Long Way from Chicago, gives the reader some sense of the setting already—you know the dang thing is set somewhere that is, um, a long way from Chicago.
But where? Hawaii? Prague? Ulaanbaatar?
Not quite so exotic. The entire story takes place in the tiny Illinois town where Joey and Mary Alice's Grandma Dowdel lives, way out in the boonies:
Grandma lived somewhere in between, in one of those towns the railroad tracks cut in two. People stood out on their porches to see the train go through. (1.5)
At first, Grandma Dowdel's town seems like the most boring place in the world…especially compared to their hometown of Chicago. The City of Broad Shoulders versus a one-horse town? Seems like there's no contest.
And Joey and Mary Alice think that nothing is going to happen while they're there:
Mary Alice said there was nothing to do and nobody to do it with, so she'd tag after me, though I was two years older and a boy. We'd stroll uptown in those first days. It was only a short block of brick buildings; the bank, the insurance agency, Moore's Store, and The Coffee Pot Cafe, where the old saloon had stood. (1.7)
But of course, it turns out that—like Grandma Dowdel—the town actually houses a lot of excitement and intrigue. In fact, it shows the kids a side of the world that they don't get to see in Chicago. They get to experience what life is like for country folk who are just struggling to get by during the Great Depression.
Grandma Dowdel's House
And Grandma Dowdel's house is even more in the boonies than the rest of the town. She's on the outskirts, and the house itself is old and super quiet at night. There's no sound from any neighbors or businesses nearby at all:
Grandma's house was the last one in town. Next to the row of glads was a woven-wire fence, and on the other side of that a cornfield. On the first nights I'd always lie up in bed, listening to the husky whisper of the dry August corn in the fields. Then on the second night I wouldn't hear anything. (3.11)
But the kids come to love Grandma Dowdel's old house and the retreat that it provides from the big city. And it's filled with bits and doodads—like an attic full of old items—that give them some sense of their family history.