You can almost hear fiddles playing and smell the sun-baked meadows of rural Depression-era Illinois while reading Richard Peck's artful and immensely funA Long Way from Chicago. The young adult novel is a series of stories about Joey and Mary Alice Dowdel who spend a week each summer with their Grandma Dowdel. The trip away from their Chicago home to the radically different small town country life is jarring at first, but over the years they grow to love their Grandma, her life, and her town.
Some of the stories are droll, a couple are hilarious, and Peck's writing throughout is witty and believable. Grandma Dowdel isn't one to show affection or love to anyone, even her grandkids, but gradually Joe sees that old Mrs. Dowdel does care about them, and that there's a lot more to her than her huge frame and deliriously good cooking. Her motives are sometimes obscure, but by the end of several yearly visits the brother and sister are on her wavelength.
This is overall an excellent book, at times riotous, at times profound, at times touching. Peck subtly yet masterfully evokes early 20th century Midwest life without overt nostalgia or wistfulness. Life then and there was fulfilling at times and difficult at others, just as it is now, even if the characters inhabiting the town around Dearborn Station sport inflated eccentricities. As Chicago natives, Joe and Mary Alice infuse an element of historical anchoring to the story, referencing John Dillinger, Al Capone, and others.
However, Peck turns the conventions of the children-and-grandparent tale upside down. He deconstructs the ideal of a wise and kind but aloof grandma, presenting in Grandma Dowdel a matriarch with little concern for morality, the often bad example she sets for her grandchildren, or her own lawlessness. She uses blackmail to help a friend, poaches fish because the sheriff does, isn't religious, and generally takes matters into her own capable but rarely scrupulous hands.
Grandma's antics are often hilarious, and Peck's inimitable style makes them funnier than the events themselves. Still, this isn't the kind of picture kids need of authority figures. Adolescents have enough trouble with respect and obedience that an anti-heroine of Grandma Dowdel's proportions isn't likely to steer them in the right direction. A Long Way from Chicago should be enjoyed, but not uncritically and certainly not in a way that condones Grandma Dowdel's frequent excursions into anarchy.
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