To my surprise, A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck is a novel told in stories rather than a straightforward narrative. As I began to dip into the stories, I also discovered that the real heroine of this short story cycle isn’t a young person but Grandma Dowdel. Despite not being what I expected, I enjoyed Peck’s touching and funny novel.
Eight stories depict several summer vacations as spent by Joey and Alice with their grandmother who lives in a rural Illinois town. The first tale starts with the riveting line, “You wouldn’t think we’d have to live Chicago to see a dead body.” No truth was better spoken for not even the big city crimes of Chicago offered as much excitement to the two siblings than the larger-than-life Grandma Dowdel who tricks a reporter into believing in ghosts, rescues the town from the terror of the Cowgill boys, sets illegal fish traps to feed drifters, bakes a pie to save her town’s honor, comes to the aid of mismatched lovers, outwits a banker, and has a showdown with her closet friend over whose family has the world’s oldest veteran. Each lengthy story is narrated by grandson Joey, as he looks back to share adventures riveting enough to make your heart race and reflective memories of his grandmother that will make you smile. The latter results in poignant lines such as there’s all different kinds of truth and we all grow up faster than we wish.
Not only does rural Illinois offer more excitement than Chicago, but Grandma Dowdel is far from your ordinary relative. Whether or not her deceased husband used a twelve-gauge, double-barreled Winchester Model 21 to ducks, it comes in handy more than once against trespassers and supposed ghosts. In front of her grandchildren, she tells whoppers to a reporter and deliberately pretends her milk has been spoiled by neighborhood hoodlums drowning mice in it. She also sets illegal traps to catch catfish and steals a boat from the town sheriff. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea from my list that Grandma Dowdel isn’t above playing the part of a con artist or even of breaking the law. Now the truth is she’s kind of like a Robin Hood and all other those outlaws who felt serving the people gave them a right to their actions. Despite being a reclusive, Grandma Dowdel makes it a point to help keep law and order in her community, feed the hungry and homeless, ensure her grandson won his coveted ride on an airplane, and keep the bank from foreclosing on the house of her sworn enemy and friend. Her influence becomes on her grandchildren becomes apparent when they become involved in their own charade.
All eight stories are memorable but I have to admit my favorite is “The Day of Judgement”. In this short, the town banker’s wife asks Grandma Dowdel to bake a pie for the country fair. The town wishes to keep their name in front of the public and believes Grandma can do it with her gooseberry pie. To convince Grandma, a ride is even offered to both her and the grandchildren. Grandma spent three busy days preparing for that fair. In the end though, she couldn’t pull off first prize. I like this story best, because it shows a vulnerable side to an otherwise tough woman. The town felt fine with the results, because a second place ribbon still did them well. She however had her pride and her grandson to consider. The first-place winner would win a ride in the airplane and Grandma desired this prize for Joey.
This week has given me a promising introduction to Richard Peck, but already I wish to check out more of his writings. To date, I have read his memoir, some of his poetry and short story collections, and A Long Way Home from Chicago. In other words, I still need to regular one of his more straightforward novels. Stay tuned. 😉
My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.
How would you rate this book?