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Joey Dowdel may be the narrator of A Long Way from Chicago, but Grandma Dowdel is the star. She's nuttier than a Snickers bar, more independent than a cat, and more full of energy than a Formula 1 car.
In short: she's larger than life.
When Joey and Mary Alice start visiting their Grandma Dowdel, they immediately recognize that she's not your typical grandmother:
She was so big, and the town was so small. She was old, too, or so we thought—old as the hills. And tough? She was tough as an old boot, or so we thought. (P.1)
Grandma Dowdel isn't just some sweet, little old lady. She's big and tough, and she won't let anyone mess with her—or her grandkids. When she heads off to go trap fishing, she doesn't ask the kids to carry her big sack of stinky cheese, even though she's an old lady.
She takes it up proudly herself:
She carried the gunnysack of cheese herself, tied to the end of a tree limb hitched up to her shoulder. [...] Grandma saved herself a lot of both by not being the kind of person you question. (3.22)
She's not afraid of hard work or incapable of carrying heavy things. Much of the time, Grandma Dowdel can do more than even the spry young kids can. She has no issues with walking for miles, sneaking under a wire fence, or even baking gooseberry pies all day and all night.
We'd seriously bet money on her setting a new record on American Ninja Warrior.
Grandma Dowdel also introduces the kids to the idea that things aren't always so black and white; sometimes, ethical choices fall in a "gray area." She has no qualms about lying in front of the kids, even though it shocks them at first.
And she takes them on outings where they watch her perform illegal acts, like trapping fish and stealing the sheriff's boat:
"Grandma," I said, "is trapping fish legal in this state?"
"If it was," she said, "we wouldn't have to be so quiet."
"What's the fine?"
"Nothin' if you don't get caught," she said. "Anyhow, it's not my boat." Which was an example of the way Grandma reasoned. (3.52-55)
But Grandma isn't breaking the law for her own personal gain. She's trapping these fish so that she can feed all the vagrants that are passing through town—the men who are victims of the Great Depression and haven't had a meal in days.
When Joey and Mary Alice see the reasoning behind Grandma's actions, they understand that sometimes it is okay to break the rules…if you're doing it for the greater good.