I used to think you had to be from the south to have a really interesting grandmother. Not only was I blessed with two extraordinary grandmas, both of them tiny women with tons of strength and stubbornness, but I always seemed to hear the best "grandma stories" from peers who also had southern grandmas. One of my friends loves to tell the story of how her Tennessee grandma once chased someone off her property with a gun. I never had anything that melodramatic, but I do love to regale people with the story of how my North Carolina grandma, in her mid-seventies, once got stuck up on her roof. She was repairing it, and the ladder fell down...she had to beat on the roof for ages to get the attention of her own 90-something hard-of-hearing father.
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But I've learned that formidable grandmothers are native to all regions (and I would guess all countries as well!). That would include the midwestern U.S., which is where Richard Peck sets his Newbery honor winning A Long Way From Chicago, a novel told in stories. Although I'm not sure we're ever told the name of the small town where those stories take place, we know it's somewhere between Chicago and St. Louis. Joey and Mary Alice, a young brother and sister who live in Chicago, take the Wabash Blue Bird every summer to visit their Grandma Dowdel. They begin their visits in the summer of 1929, when Joey is nine and Mary Alice is seven.
"A Story That Grows in the Telling"
Although A Long Way From Chicago is very much a coming of age story, told from Joey's perspective, the driving force behind every page is the redoubtable character of Grandma Dowdel. She was always, at least in her grandchildren's eyes, "old as the hills...and tough as an old boot." She also never seemed to change, Joey thoughtfully admits in the prologue, but (in an admission of how much he and Mary Alice changed) "we'd seem to see a different woman each summer."
And that's much of the charm of these wonderfully written tall tales. Grandma Dowdel starts out larger than life, vital, full of vim and vigor, her finger on the town pulse. And she stays that way, if anything just becoming more herself as the years go by. What changes are Joey and Mary Alice's reactions to this amazing, fearsome grandmother. They don't always understand her, but they're fascinated by her. And though they pretend boredom with the small town summers, they know that they're actually receiving an education with their grandmother that they could never get anywhere else.
Nothing gets past Grandma Dowdel's sharp eyes, and she has an almost inflexible sense of justice, which doesn't stop her from breaking the law (or bending it) when she feels it's in her best interests, or in the interests of those who need her help. It's fun to catch glimpses of honesty and compassion glinting through her steely exterior, especially as Joey and Mary Alice trip along in her wake.
The book contains eight chapters, each chapter title followed by a year, each a gem of a short story. The first seven chapters run in chronological order from 1929 -1935 (so our narrator Joey grows from 9 years old to 15). The final story, entitled "The Troop Train" is set in 1942, and is really more of an afterword. Though each story stands beautifully on its own, they also build on each other, coming as they do in successive summers. By the end of the book, we've been given a very full portrait of Grandma Dowdel and a real appreciation for the ways in which Joey and Mary Alice have changed, especially as a result of their time with her.
I should mention that these stories are laugh-out-loud funny. I called them tall tales, and they are. Grandma Dowdel is incredibly well-drawn and the situations she and her grandkids get into are way over the top. Peck is really writing in the American humorist tradition, with a style reminiscent of Garrison Keillor or Mark Twain.
The very first chapter/story, "Shotgun Cheatham's Last Night Above Ground," is one of the funniest. When a big city reporter comes nosing into town for a story about the death of old Shotgun Cheatham, Grandma decides to set him straight. She's tired of hearing poor ol' Shotgun described as a gunslinger (there are even rumors he ran with Jesse James in his younger years) so she spins a yarn about how old Shotgun was actually a respectable war hero who fought with Grant at Vicksburg. To back up this whopper, she has to make sure that Cheatham has a proper burial. She gets them to bring the coffin to her front parlor, then invites the reporter to an all-night-vigil. She then treats the reporter to some drama. A shotgun and a cat are involved. I won't tell you more, but you'll be wiping your eyes (crying from laughter) before the chapter is out.
There are many other funny moments, and a few poignant ones too. Grandma seems to get the best of pretentious people, whether they're the town sheriff (who gets drunk on his day off), the dairy farmer's renegade sons, or the banker's wife who thinks her father is the oldest veteran in town. Only once does Grandma get a bit of a comeuppance herself, in perhaps my favorite story "The Day of Judgment" (set in 1932). But it's a marvelously funny comeuppance, connected to her conceit about her prize-winning gooseberry pie, and even Grandma seems to see some of the humor and justice in it.
Right About Now, You May Be Wondering...
...is this really children's book fare? Well, yes and no. While there's nothing hugely objectionable for kids in these stories, I do think that the sophisticated level of humor will work best for children 12 and up, a little older than you might expect for a Newbery honor book whose protagonists are a few years younger than that at book's beginning. Maybe it's because Joey and Mary Alice grow into adolescence, or because Peck draws such outrageous and outlandish situations. Younger kids could certainly enjoy elements of these stories (they'd make a riotous family read-aloud!) but you might need to explain the nature of "tall tales" which would help them to understand that Grandma's character doesn't precisely function as a role model at all times. A Twain short story might be a good introduction to Peck, or vice versa.
But however/whenever you choose to introduce Peck to young people, do introduce him. I'd never read him before this particular book, and I'm now eagerly looking forward to A Year Down Yonder, the Newbery Medal winning sequel. He is a marvelous writer, and A Long Way From Chicago does a funny, fascinating job of capturing small-town, depression-era America. Turns out I'm very glad to have met Grandma Dowdel. She definitely reminds me of some other grandmothers I've known.
A Long Way From Chicago: A Novel in Stories
by Richard Peck
Puffin Books, 1998
I'm grateful to have received a review copy of this book (via the books category leads). The copy I received actually presents A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder in one "complimentary teacher's" volume, with a guide/list of discussion questions for teachers to use in teaching these books to students. Apparently Penguin wanted to make these "modern classics" available and encourage teachers to present them for classroom discussion, in part because a third volume about Grandma Dowdel is due out this month (September 2009). The teacher's copy presents a "sneak peek" of the new novel, and a letter from author Richard Peck. At the advice of panguitch, I'm reviewing each of the two novels separately. Each is reprinted with its own separate copyright information.
If you're a teacher interested in receiving this special 2-novels-in-one volume, with the bonus teaching materials, I recommend that you contact The School and Library Marketing Department at Penguin Young Readers Group.