A Long Way From Chicago, Richard Peck, Penguin Putnam Inc, 1998, 148 pp
It is Sunday, the day I review children's lit. Today's book is for readers of ages 8-12; third through seventh grade.
(At the bookstore where I work, we have a shelf dedicated to the Newbery Awards and I would always see this book when restocking the shelves. Every December, our store's adult fiction reading group reads a children's book. This past December we read A Season of Gifts by Richard Peck, which has a blurb on the cover saying it is a companion to A Long Way From Chicago and A Year Down Yonder. I decided to read all three.)
A Long Way From Chicago is a Newbery Honor winner, which means a runner-up. In 1929, the Great Depression is just beginning. Nine-year-old Joey and his seven-year-old sister Mary Alice, who live with their parents in Chicago, are sent on the train to visit their Grandma Dowdel in southern Illinois for a week of the summer. As it turns out, they continue to make this visit every summer for seven years. Each visit gets a chapter.
You might think this is going to be just one of those stories about city kids who go to the country and find a whole different way of life including farming, fishing and hanging out with animals. And it would be except that Grandma Dowdel is like no other grandma you have ever read about.
She is tough and strong, can cook up amazing meals and grow her own food, like most mid-western grandmothers, not to mention growing flowers and sewing and all that. But she is also wily like a fox, not too particular when it comes to telling the truth and in her own ornery way, takes care of her little community with a heart full of love and justice.
So you meet inbred lunks, eccentric old people, the ridiculous wife of the local banker and more. Joey, who narrates, and Mary Alice, who gets braver every summer, are given a broad education in human nature and develop a fierce love for the grandma.
I am not sure a child in the 21st century would get all the references to 1930s culture, but any child would be delighted and proud to have a grandmother like Mrs Dowdel. As an adult who visited her small-town mid-western relatives every summer, I got to relive many happy memories. I'm just fine with not living in that part of the country, but I realized I am richer for having spent time there in the 1950s.
(A Long Way From Chicago is available on the shelf in the Newbery Awards section at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)