I am a Richard Peck fan. In fact, if I made a short list of my favorite contemporary children’s/YA authors, he’d be at the top. I find his blend of humor and poignancy irresistible. Add to this the fact that he writes about common midwesterners (which are astonishingly like southerners, at least in my mind), and you have a recipe for a perfectly enjoyable book that also tugs the heartstrings. The Newbery award committees and others think so, too. A Long Way from Chicago won a the Newbery honor in 1999; its sequel, A Year Down Yonder, won the gold in 2001. I first read these two novels in my pre-blogging days and LOVED them. (They even made my list of my favorite books ever.) I listened to A Long Way from Chicago, performed by Ron McLarty, recently and with much anticipation and enjoyment, and I was not disappointed.
A Long Way from Chicago is the story of Joey and his sister Mary Alice, denizens of Chicago, who visit their Grandma Dowdel in rural Illinois every summer. The subtitle/tagline of the book is “a novel in stories,” and so it is: each chapter recounts the experiences of Joey and Mary Alice from another year, 1929 through 1935, with the conclusion being the year 1942. Joey tells the stories, and we get to see Grandma Dowdel and her dealings with her neighbors through his eyes. Grandma Dowdel is, as we say here in the South, somethin’. She “likes to keep herself to herself”; that is, she keeps her own counsel, and she always has something up her sleeve. She’s not above doing something underhanded, but it’s always to get back at the town busy bodies and better-than-thous. Joey and Mary Alice’s first experience with Grandma Dowdel involves giving a big city reporter his comeuppance when she hosts the wake for Shotgun Cheatham (whom the reporter just happens to believe is a big city gangster). Grandma Dowdel gets the reporter drunk and scaring the bejeebers out of him. (The title of this chapter is modestly and hilariously understated: “Shotgun Cheatham’s Last Night Above Ground.”) I don’t want to overshare about their hijinks, but to suffice it to say that something like this happens every summer. The novel isn’t without its subtleties, though. The kids grow up over the course of the novel, and Grandma Dowdel softens– not in her behavior, but in our perception of her. With the last chapter, Grandma Dowdel’s soft heart towards her grandchildren is shown in a very poignant way, and (naturally) I was in tears.
Richard Peck’s writing style is reminiscent of that master of understated comedy, Mark Twain. Without complete context, this isn’t as funny as it should be, but here’s a snippet:
I’d never seen Mr. Weidenbach before, but this couldn’t have been one of his better days. Over his head on the wall above the desk was a widemouthed bass, stuffed. “You will have to excuse me,” he boomed, showing us chairs. “This crackbrained rumor that Dillinger is still alive is doing our business no good.”
“If it’s a rumor at all,” said Grandma, on her dignity and then some. “A rumor is sometimes truth on the trail.”
“I am interested to hear you say so, Mrs. Dowdel.” The banker pulled the purse strings of his mouth taut. “It brings us to the point.”
I love the imagery: the widemouthed bass, the banker’s mouth that is a purse.
Richard Peck is a very prolific author, and I’ve only read his historical fiction (which also includes some animal stories). I’d like to branch out and read from his other genres. I give both Richard Peck and A Long Way from Chicago a Highly, Highly Recommended.
Other reviews here at Hope Is the Word: