Study Guide

A Long Way from Chicago Poverty

By Richard Peck

Poverty

Chapter 1
Grandma Dowdel

"He was just an old reprobate who lived poor and died broke," Grandma said. "Nobody went near him because he smelled like a polecat. He lived in a chicken coop, and now they'll have to burn it down." (1.15)

When the kids go to stay with Grandma, they're exposed to a completely different way of life—one that's slower and also involves being surrounded by a great deal of poverty. It's eye-opening and helps to round out their perspective on the world.

Chapter 3

An old house without a speck of paint on it stood tall on the bluff. Its outbuildings had caved in, and the privy stood at an angle. There were still prairie chickens around in those days, and they were pecking dirt. Otherwise, the place looked lifeless. Rags hung at the windows. (3.91)

Things aren't looking good at old Aunt Puss's house. It's obvious that she was once well off, but she's fallen on hard times…and the state of the house reflects that.

They were hollow-eyed men who couldn't believe their luck. Two or three of them, then five or six. They didn't thank her. She wasn't looking for thanks. (3.155)

Grandma isn't like the other townsfolk, who just want the vagrants to get out of their town. She sets up a table with plates of food so that she can feed the men, and Joey and Mary Alice help her, too.

You could see hard times from the window of the Wabash Blue Bird. The freight trains on the siding were loaded down with men trying to get from one part of the country to another, looking for work and something to eat. Mary Alice and I watched them as they stood in the open doors of the freight cars. They were walking along the right-of-way too, with nothing in their hands. (3.2)

The Great Depression is no joke, and Joey and Mary Alice get a front row seat to the harsh realities of poverty when they visit Grandma Dowdel. There are tons of people walking through the town in order to find work and food.

"You take her food every week, don't you Grandma?"

"Generally a good big roast chicken. She can gum that for days." Grandma turned down the lane. "It keeps her out of the poor farm, and it gives me a quiet day in the country. That's a fair swap." (3.144-145)

Even though Aunt Puss is mean and terrible, Grandma Dowdel still brings her food every week because she doesn't want the old woman to starve. And besides, she knows what it's like to be poor and desperate.

Chapter 6
Grandma Dowdel

"Vampires? No. The only bloodsuckers is the banks." Grandma stroked her chins. "Movies is all pretend. They're made in California, you know. But they prove a point. Make something seem real, and people will believe it. The public will swallow anything." (6.39)

Grandma Dowdel doesn't see vampires as monsters, but she does see banks as the real bloodsuckers. They're the ones who are taking away people's livelihoods, and she won't stand for that.

Grandma stepped back and clutched her throat, showing shock. "Don't tell me the bank's failed. Banks is failing all over. Had I better draw out my funds? Is there still time?"

"No, ma'am, the bank's still in business." Otis looked down at his boots. "Your seventeen dollars is safe." (6.108-109)

When Grandma Dowdel is summoned to come meet with Mr. Weidenbach, she demands to know if that bank has failed. She only has $17 in her account, but that's still money that she'd like to hang on to.

"No, you double-dealing, four-flushing old cootie," she replied. "You can draw it out of your own wallet. Any man with a wife who'll pay fifteen dollars for an old preacher's moth-eaten stovepipe hat has four bucks to spare." (6.140)

Grandma Dowdel isn't going to hold back what she thinks about Mr. Weidenbach and how he hoards money while letting other people starve. She tells him to give some money to Joey and Mary Alice right now…and to make sure that Effie Wilcox can still live in town.

In July they'd killed John Dillinger, Public Enemy Number One. He'd been on a long spree, robbing banks throughout the middle west. The public didn't know whether they wanted him caught or not. He'd provided a lot of entertainment in hard times. Since he stole from banks, he was called a Robin Hood, though he wasn't known for giving to the poor. (6.6)

Even though John Dillinger is a total bad guy, the public is still kind of on his side. With all the poverty and desperation that they're facing, it's hard to dislike someone who is sticking it to the banks.

"She's gone for good," Grandma said. "Off to double up with her sister at Palmyra. Bank's foreclosing on her house, so she lit out, not wanting to watch them dump her stuff in the road. After Wilcox died, she left the farm and bought that house in town. But she can't keep up with the payments." (6.5)

Poor Effie Wilcox is yet another victim of the Great Depression. When she stops making payments on her house, the bank swoops in to repossess it…and that means that she has to leave town altogether.

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