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From wee tadpole to young man in uniform, this cup of Joe is our main man. After all, over the course of this novel, he goes from thinking that jigsaw puzzles are pretty much the best thing since sliced bread to flying in an airplane to dressing up like a dang ghost.
What better narrator could you ask for?
In A Long Way from Chicago, we get to see all of Joey's visits to Grandma Dowdel's house through his eyes. Because each chapter tells the story of a different year when the kids come to visit their grandmother, we get to see how their relationship and view of Grandma Dowdel change over time.
As he states at the beginning of the book:
As the years went by, though, Mary Alice and I grew up, and though Grandma never changed, we'd seem to see a different woman every summer. (P.1)
Through the course of the book, Joey tells us exactly how he comes to see a different woman every summer that he stays there. (Hint: it has something to do with ye olde coming of age.)
Unlike Mary Alice, Joey takes pretty quickly to Grandma Dowdel's strange ways. He especially relishes the fact that she lets them do things that aren't always law-abiding. When she sneaks onto private property to go fishing, he helps her without a second thought:
"Lift that wire so I can skin under," Grandma said.
The lowest wire was pretty close to the ground. But Grandma was already flat on her back in the weeds. She'd pushed the cheese through. Now she began to work her shoulders to inch herself under. (3.30-31)
Instead of being horrified by Grandma's trespassing, Joey immediately lifts up the wire so that she can crawl through…and then follows right behind her.
Joey also finds that sometimes, Grandma Dowdel's schemes totally help him out. She recognizes just how much he wants to ride in an airplane and lies at the fair in order to get him a free ride. Now, that's a good grandmother to have backing you up.
Even though Joey is just a little boy when he starts visiting his Grandma Dowdel, he tries to be tough because he's the "man of the house." But living with Grandma Dowdel reveals to Joey that women can be just as fearless as men—and even more so. When he faints after seeing a snake, he's completely mortified:
"Okay, okay," I muttered. Grandma stifled a rare smile. I suspected she had no high opinion of the bravery of the male sex, and I hadn't done anything to change her mind. Why wasn't it Mary Alice who'd done the fainting? It bothered me off and on for years. (3.45)
Come on, Joey—are you really going to second-guess a woman who kills a snake with her bare hands? (Proof positive that Grandma Dowdel is more kick-butt than Indy Jones.)
Spending that time with Grandma Dowdel instills in Joey a respect for women—and an understanding of what they can do. Anyone can be a fearless, determined warrior, whether female or male, old or young.
That's a pretty big revelation for a boy who's growing up during the Great Depression. After all, this was the era when a man was supposed to be stoic and women were supposed to be homemakers. Strict gender roles were pretty much more ironclad than the law.
But, hey, Grandma Dowdel is both a law-breaker and a woman who doesn't give two hoots for society's arbitrary definition of "ladylike."
A big part of the story has to do with how Joey grows up over the years he spends with Grandma Dowdel. At the beginning, Joey is just a little kid and doesn't particularly understand everything about his grandmother's town or her neighbors. But as time goes on, he comes into more and more contact with the other folks in town, and he helps Grandma Dowdel in her schemes to save the poor.
Grandma Dowdel also lets the kids grow up without too much supervision…whereas their parents might be a little more overprotective. She lets Joey take his first airplane ride and is totally okay with him taking driving lessons as long as he pays for it himself—which makes Joey feel super grown up:
I started off to Ray's that evening with a two-dollar bill in my jeans and a song in my heart. I felt like I was six feet tall and shaved. My right hand played through the gearshift positions, and I was ready. (6.143)
He's just 13, but going off to take his driving lessons makes Joey feel like he's a real man's man. Not only is he taking driving lessons, but he's getting to practice in a totally amazing ride.
And by the end of the book, Joey Dowdel is no longer a little kid that's scared of vampires. He's a young man who's about to be shipped off to fight in World War II…and his time with his grandmother helped him become that brave, go-getting man.