Top 100 Children’s Novels #67: A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck
If we were to have a memorable characters contest (and we should) I’d take Grandma Dowdel, the central figure in Richard Peck’s 1998 “novel in stories” against any challenger. Bring ’em on. Dowdel’s voluminous personality carries A Long Way from Chicago (and two follow ups) to unforgettable heights. Tough and clever, but with a heart that oh-so-occasionally comes to the surface, Dowdel is a character the reader can’t help but reckon with. – Travis Jonker
“Where there is Grandma Dowdel, there is a hoot. Take this quote, from barely 5 pages in: “”Never trust an ugly woman. She’s got a grudge against the world,”” said Grandma, who was no oil painting herself.
Although Peck only allows us to peek into Grandma’s home for one week per year, by the time we’re halfway through the book we feel like we’ve known her for as long as Effie Wilcox has (who was the object of that first comment, by the way, and who is either Grandma’s worst enemy or her best friend, depending on what day it is). But in each chapter Peck opens another door to Grandma Dowdel, and darned if he doesn’t surprise us every time. We have the privilege of watching Grandma cut the Cowgill boys down to size (which may not really be that tough, since they “”aren’t broke out with brains””), get a whiff of her homemade cheese, which smelled “”bad enough to gas a cat””, and listen to her slice through the banker’s wife’s formalities with one sentence: My stars. The bank forecloses on people’s farms and throws them off their land, and they don’t even appreciate it. Grandma doesn’t give one whit what anybody in town thinks of her. She is ornery, wicked clever, and afeared o’ nothin’. She is fearsome to behold, but she has a compassionate side tucked away somewhere under her white bun of hair. Mostly, she is entirely marvelous to get to know. Hurray for Grandma Dowdel, and hurray for Richard Peck’s brilliant imagination.
I heard Richard Peck speak once, and was absolutely stunned by his eloquence. He can spin a yarn a country mile and read Shakespeare like he dictated it to Will. He’s amazing.” – Kristi Hazelrigg
Sure, I could have cut that down somewhat, but where Grandma Dowdel is concerned it is best to be loquacious. And Kristi has pretty much perfectly put her finger right dab down on what it is about this character that makes people love her so very very much.
Unlike some books, Grandma Dowdel isn’t one for flitting about a list of this sort. Her position last time? 64. This time she eased down a place or two, but basically she’s sitting pretty in the same slot. Just the way she likes it.
The plot synopsis according to Publishers Weekly read, “Although the narrator, Joey, and his younger sister, Mary Alice, live in the Windy city during the reign of Al Capone and Bugs Moran, most of their adventures occur ‘a long way from Chicago,’ during their annual down-state visits with Grandma Dowdel. A woman as ‘old as the hills,’ ‘tough as an old boot,’ and larger than life (‘We could hardly see her town because of Grandma. She was so big, and the town was so small’), Grandma continually astounds her citified grandchildren by stretching the boundaries of truth. In eight hilarious episodes spanning the years 1929-1942, she plots outlandish schemes to even the score with various colorful members of her community, including a teenaged vandal, a drunken sheriff and a well-to-do banker. Readers will be eager to join the trio of Grandma, Joey and Mary Alice on such escapades as preparing an impressive funeral for Shotgun Cheatham, catching fish from a stolen boat and arranging the elopement of Vandalia Eubanks and Junior Stubbs.”
In the December 2001 edition of Reading Teacher, the article “2001 Newbery Medal Winner: A Conversation” quotes Mr. Peck as he recalls the inspiration for his most famous creation. “I gather from everything. Grandma [Dowdel] is the great American tradition I came from. She is all of my great aunts, and while she is not much like my grandmother–except physically–all were imposing women. They didn’t wear tracksuits. They wore big Lane Bryant dresses. And they wore shoes. Those were shoes. It was a matriarchy, and Grandma Dowdel represents that. Notice she is often cooking? To her, that is not a subservient role; that is feeding the world. My relatives did that; they were so food oriented back then. Their kitchens were their temples. That is the tradition that I came from. Small town and rural midwest. And I don’t want it to die. I am writing for kids in suburbs who don’t know that time or that place.”
Actually, it is very difficult to keep from wanting to quote the man over and over. In the same interview he mentions the importance of titles and says, “There is no perfect title except Gone with the Wind, and it has been used.” I will abstain from doing more.
It won a Newbery Honor in 1999 and was, in fact, the only Honor book of its year. The winner? Holes by Louis Sachar. Two years later the sequel to this book, A Year Down Yonder, would win the Newbery proper. This book was also honored as a National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature back in 1998. Finally, the third Grandma Dowdel book A Season of Gifts, came out in 2009.
- Here are some classroom connections for teachers.
- And a reading guide provided by the publisher.
Five Owls said of it, “Entertaining from start to finish, this would be an ideal book for a grandparent to share with a grandchild, or for a family to share and laugh through together. But behind the fun, there is a story that will make you consider whether Grandma is a saint or a sinner. Is she a crotchety old lady who uses lies for her gain–or an aging female Robin Hood with a heart of gold? A Long Way from Chicago could serve as a springboard for a family discussion about the inconsistencies in people, and whether the end ever justifies the means. A Long Way from Chicago is one of the best books of the year. Young readers will almost certainly want to learn more about the Great Depression after reading or listening to this book. And everybody will want more summer adventures to rattle their sensibilities and think about the benefits of an extended family.”
School Library Journal thought that, “Peck’s conversational style has a true storyteller’s wit, humor, and rhythm.”
Publishers Weekly put in a concise, “Like Grandma Dowdel’s prize-winning gooseberry pie, this satire on small-town etiquette is fresh, warm and anything but ordinary.”
Said Horn Book, “Peck’s skill as a stylist, his ear for dialogue, and his sense of drama are all in evidence here. Told with verve, economy, and assurance, each tale is a small masterpiece of storytelling, subtly building on the ones that precede it. Taken as a whole, the novel reveals a strong sense of place, a depth of characterization, and a rich sense of humor. ”
I think it very likely that some of you have not seen Mr. Peck speak before. This is a true shame because watching him talk is remarkable. He will speak, then read a passage from one of his books, and when he does this you discover that his voice does not change in modulation much from one activity to another. A hint of what I am talking about, then. This contains a series of selections from the SCBWI Master Class DVD with Richard Peck (a very useful item for any library to own, I would note). It even includes a section from the last Grandma Dowdel book A Season of Gifts.
“Fiction is the only eternal life.”
And here’s the latest cover:
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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