A Long Way From Chicago

by Richard Peck

Dial Press, 1998

192 pages

When I first started this blog, I made a few rules for myself. One of them was never to review the same author more than once. For 7 years, I’ve kept that rule – but now I’m about to break it.

Six years ago, I wrote about Richard Peck’s Here Lies the Librarian, a hilarious and (of course) inspiring story about a girl mechanic who, through mentoring from the town librarians, gains the courage to follow her own path.

I’ve tried ever since to get my daughter interested in Richard Peck, but I could never quite convince her to pick up one of his books. Then – hallelujah – her fifth-grade English teacher assigned A Long Way From Chicago, and she was hooked. She read it twice on her own, then requested it as our family bedtime book.

A Long Way From Chicago was actually my introduction to Richard Peck and the reason I wanted to read Here Lies the Librarian. But because it had been so long since I’d read Peck, I’d forgotten just how wonderful A Long Way From Chicago really is – and how perfect it is for this blog. Hence my decision to break my rule.

Peck’s novel-in-stories is the saga of young Joey, his sister Mary Alice, and their yearly visits to their Grandma Dowdel’s home in rural 1930s Illinois. Like the rest of the country, Grandma’s town is struggling to find its way through the Depression. Money is tight, people are hungry, and everyone is making do or doing without.

Grandma Dowdel, however, is indomitable. Both literally and figuratively, she looms large at the center of every story. She is physically and mentally solid – and always full of surprises. Put quite simply, she does what she wants, with results that are both hilarious and heart-warming.

When mischievous teenagers topple her neighbor’s privy, she administers poetic justice involving a dead mouse and milk bottles. She catches the sheriff and his cronies holding a drunken party in their underwear, then leverages the knowledge to get away with feeding illegally caught fish to hungry drifters. When the local bank forecloses on her oldest friend, she “discovers” a historic connection that makes the foreclosure politically untenable.

She’s an imposing and inspiring figure, an example to girls of how satisfying life can be when you live it on your own terms. And she blows apart the stereotype of the strong woman who grows into old age bitter, frigid, and alone. Grandma is comfortable in her own skin, lively, and a rock to her community.

And then there’s Mary Alice. Timid and uncertain at first, she eventually starts to emulate Grandma’s confidence. Ultimately, she becomes the older woman’s primary partner in mischief. By the end of the book, Joey is in awe of his little sister’s self-possession, cleverness, and beauty.

The relationship between Grandma and Mary Alice is a light-hearted but thought-provoking example of the empowerment that can be passed from one generation of women to the other. And, at the end of the day, that’s what I find most inspiring about this book: the reminder that strong women beget strong women, even through simple daily interactions. Each new generation carries the strength forward, impacting those around them and making our communities better for everyone.

 

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