Study Guide

A Long Way from Chicago Chapter 1

By Richard Peck

Chapter 1

Shotgun Cheatham's Last Night Above Ground (1929)

  • Even though Joey and Mary Alice live in Chicago during the time of Al Capone, they have yet to see a real live dead person. (Hmm. Maybe the phrase "real live dead person" doesn't really make sense…)
  • But the summer that Joey is 9 and Mary Alice is 7, the kids are sent to stay with their Grandma Dowdel for a week.
  • Joey doesn't mind at all because he likes traveling via train, but Mary Alice absolutely hates going to stay with their grandma.
  • That's because their grandma lives in a tiny town where there's nothing to do. And, on top of that, they have to go outside to use the toilet. Talk about humiliating (and stinky).
  • So, for the week that they stay with Grandma Dowdel, Mary Alice always tags along after Joey, which is a classic little sister move.
  • They go to The Coffee Pot Cafe, which is where literally everyone in this tiny town goes to gossip and catch up. There's not even a town bar to hang out at because Prohibition is in full swing.
  • Although things are usually pretty slow in this sleepy little town, Joey and Mary Alice are in luck because when they do go to stay with Grandma Dowdel that summer, a local named Shotgun Cheatham has died.
  • Grandma Dowdel isn't so amused by this turn of events because she's heard that the newspaper wants to know more about Shotgun Cheatham—and she can tell that they just want to make fun of the locals' hillbilly ways and funny names.
  • The kids have heard all sorts of rumors about how Shotgun Cheatham rode with outlaws and robbed sheriffs, but their grandma sets them straight. That's all nonsense.
  • When a newspaper reporter shows up on their doorstep asking about Shotgun Cheatham, the kids are certain that Grandma Dowdel will scare him off…but instead, she invites him right in.
  • She tells him all these tales about how he was a Civil War hero and how he died penniless because he gave all his money to war widows and orphans. She even reveals that he never married but broke the heart of Effie (the town gossip).
  • And then, much to their surprise, Grandma even announces that she's going to host an open house with Shotgun's casket in their front room.
  • All the neighbors show up, talking about how amazing Shotgun was and how they had no idea that he was a real live war hero.
  • People stay for a while and then start to leave when it gets dark. Some people (including the newspaper reporter) stay and doze off after having a few drinks, though.
  • But then that night, everyone is woken up to some sound and movement coming from Shotgun's casket. They're all horrified, but Grandma doesn't blink an eye—she just gets her rifle and shoots right into the casket.
  • Joey sees what really happened, though; the sound and movement came from Grandma's cat climbing into the casket…and when she shot at the dead body, the cat had already crawled out the window.
  • But Grandma successfully makes Shotgun Cheatham's funeral a story that will go down in history—and she'll be known forever as the woman who shot a man who came back from the dead.

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