Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5
One of the 1999 Newbery Honor books, A Long Way From Chicago presents vignettes of two city kids’ adventures with their grandmother in the small town where she lives. Each chapter is a year (1929-1935 and 1942), and a separate tale of hijinks.
Joey and Mary Alice take the train to the rural town, expecting a boring visit and annoyed at their parents for separating them from friends. Their grandmother, Mrs. Dowdel, is not demonstrative. She is also extremely unconventional. She does her best to keep the town at bay with her off-putting behaviour, but finds sneaky ways to avenge what she sees as wrong. One summer, a wave of vandalism strikes the town. Grandma figures out that the Cowgill brothers are behind it and baits them by telling them she’s off to visit relatives; she sits in the darkened house with a shotgun and catches them cutting the screen wire. Knowing their father, owner of the local dairy, won’t do anything, she also fishes a mouse out of a trap and dumps it in the bottle of milk. When the expected happens and the Cowgill boys look like they’re going to walk away, she throws a fit about mice in the milk, resulting in the kids getting thrashed and the destructive pranks ending.
Grandma doesn’t have a high regard for the law, but her misdemeanors usually help someone who needs it. She audaciously “borrows” the sheriff’s boat to check her illegal fish traps, the contents of which she uses to feed both a former employer who now suffers from dementia and all the out-of-work men passing through town looking for jobs. When the sheriff threatens her, she blackmails him into silence.
Despite her unique way of showing affection, it is clear that Grandma cares for her grandchildren deeply. In the last chapter, Joey is going through town on his way to basic training. He notifies his grandma, and she’s out there waving at the train, even though it doesn’t go through until the wee hours of the morning.
This book is laugh-out-loud funny. The grandmother is such an original character; you never can predict what she’s going to do. Richard Peck, the author, manages to surprise the reader time and again. In general, first-person narratives, particularly children, are not my favorite. However, Peck pulls it off well, framing the book as remembrances of an old man, but written as Joey experienced the events.
I highly recommend this book for middle to late elementary schoolers or anyone looking for an entertaining read. The pranks are funny, but the emotions real. It’s a light read that still has substance.