A Long Way from Chicago (Puffin Modern Classics)

A Long Way from Chicago (Puffin Modern Classics)

by Richard Peck


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A Long Way from Chicago (Puffin Modern Classics) by Richard Peck

Join Joey and his sister Mary Alice as they spend nine unforgettable summers with the worst influence imaginable-their grandmother!

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780142401101
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 04/12/2004
Series: Puffin Modern Classics Series
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 145,167
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.00(h) x 0.43(d)
Lexile: 750L (what's this?)
Age Range: 10 - 14 Years

About the Author

RICHARD PECK (1934-2018) was born in Decatur, Illinois and lived in New York City for nearly 50 years. The acclaimed author of 35 novels for children and young adults, he won the Newbery Medal for A Year Down Yonder, a Newbery Honor for A Long Way from Chicago, the Scott O’Dell Award for The River Between Us, the Edgar Allen Poe Award for Are You in the House Alone?, a Boston Globe-Horn BookAward Honor for The Best Man, and the Christopher Medal for The Teacher’s Funeral. He was the first children’s author ever to have been awarded a National Humanities Medal, and was twice a National Book Award Finalist.  

Reading Group Guide


Young readers who live in age-segregated suburbs need the wisdom, and the wit, of elders. After all, this is a young generation who no longer even have to write thank-you notes for gifts from grandparents. They rob themselves of their own histories and are once again at the mercy of each other.

But stories are better than that. They champion the individual, not the mass movement. They mix up the generations. They provide a continuity growing hard to come by. And laughter. Best of all, laughter.

Every summer from 1929-1935, in A Long Way from Chicago, Joey Dowdel and his younger sister, Mary Alice, are sent to spend a week with their grandmother in her small Illinois town located halfway between Chicago and St. Louis. Not even the big city crimes of Chicago offer as much excitement as Grandma Dowdel when she outwits the banker, sets illegal fish traps, catches the town's poker playing business men in their underwear, and saves the town from the terror of the Cowgill boys. Now an old man, Joe Dowdel remembers these seven summers and the "larger than life" woman who out-smarted the law and used blackmail to help those in need.



Richard Peck has written over twenty novels, and in the process has become one of America's most highly respected writers for young adults. A versatile writer, he is beloved, by those in middle school as well as young adults, for his mysteries and coming-of-age novels. In addition to writing, he spends a great deal of time traveling around the country attending speaking engagements at conferences, schools and libraries. He now lives in New York City.

Mr. Peck has won a number of major awards for the body of his work, including the Margaret A. Edwards Award from School Library Journal, the National Council of Teachers of English/ALAN Award, and the 1991 Medallion from the University of Southern Mississippi. Virtually every publication and association in the field of children's literature has recommended his books, including Mystery Writers of America, which twice gave him their Edgar Allan Poe Award.



Grandma Dowdel and I

Once in a while in a long writing career, one character rises off the page and takes on special life. So it happened with Grandma Dowdel in A Long Way from Chicago and again in A Year Down Yonder. Meant to be larger than life, she became all too lifelike. The letters came in at once: "Was she YOUR grandmother", they ask? Did my own grandmother fire off both barrels of a shotgun in her own front room? Did she pour warm glue on the head of a hapless Halloweener? Did she spike the punch at a DAR tea? Well, no. Writers aren't given much credit for creativity.

Yet writing is the quest for roots, and I draw on my earliest memories of visiting my grandmother in a little town cut by the tracks of the Wabash Railroad. It was, in fact, Cerro Gordo, Illinois. I use that town in my stories, though I never name it, wanting readers to think of small towns they know.

The house in the stories is certainly my grandma's, with the snowball bushes crowding the bay window and the fly strip heavy with corpses hanging down over the oilcloth kitchen table, and the path back to the privy.

I even borrow my grandmother's physical presence. My grandmother was six feet tall with a fine crown of thick white hair, and she wore aprons the size of Alaska. But she wasn't Grandma Dowdel. When you're a writer, you can give yourself the grandma you wished you had.

Perhaps she's popular with readers because she isn't an old lady at all. Maybe she's a teenager in disguise. After all, she believes the rules are for other people. She always wants her own way. And her best friend and worst enemy is the same person [Mrs. Wilcox]. Sounds like adolescence to me, and even more like puberty.

But whoever she is, she's an individual. Young readers need stories of rugged individualism because most of them live in a world completely ruled by peer-group conformity.


  • Describe Joey and Mary Alice's relationship with Grandma Dowdel. Discuss why their parents thought it so important that they get to know their Grandma. What kind of mother do you think Grandma Dowdel was to Joey and Mary Alice's father? Joey says that Grandma frightens his mother-Grandma's daughter-in-law. What characteristics of Grandma make her so frightening?
  • Joe Dowdel is an adult sharing his memories of Grandma Dowdel. He says, "Are all my memories true? Every word, and growing truer with the years." (p. 1) What does Joe mean when he says, "growing truer with years?" What kind of relationship do you think Joe Dowdel has with his grandchildren? Discuss whether the summers spent with Grandma Dowdel might have shaped the kind of grandfather he became.
  • Why does Mary Alice say, "I don't think Grandma's a very good influence on us"? (p. 61) How is she a good influence on her grandchildren? Ask the students to debate whether Grandma is a "bad influence" or a "good role model."
  • Grandma Dowdel never seems to shows affection. How do you know that she loves her grandchildren?
  • Why does Grandma Dowdel display the body of Shotgun Cheatham in her parlor? Discuss what Grandma means when she says, "A rumor is sometimes truth on the trail." (p. 115)
  • During their visit in 1931, Joey and Mary Alice realize that Grandma Dowdel runs illegal fish traps. Why is it important to have hunting and fishing laws? What department in state government is responsible for monitoring such laws? They vow never to tell their dad about this. Discuss what other things Joey and Mary Alice discover about Grandma that they are likely to keep to themselves. Why does Sheriff Dickerson call Grandma a "one-woman crime-wave"? (p. 57)
  • One of Grandma's weapons is blackmail. Discuss the numerous times in the novel that she uses blackmail to help people. What does the phrase "larger than life" mean? How does this fit Grandma?
  • During which summer do you think Joey and Mary Alice learn the true character of Grandma?
  • Joey says, "As the years went by, we'd seem to see a different woman every summer." (p.1) Discuss whether it's Grandma that changes, or Joey and Mary Alice.

Lesson Plans

Curriculum Connections

Language Arts

  • In the summer of 1930, Mary Alice brings her jump rope to Grandma's house and occupies herself by jumping rope to rhymes. Ask students to use books in the library or the Internet to locate popular jump rope rhymes. Then have them create a jump rope rhyme about Grandma.
  • The reader sees Grandma Dowdel through Joey Dowdel's eyes. Discuss how a reader's impression of a character is shaped by point-of-view. Ask students to select another character in the novel (i.e. Effie Wilcox, Mr. Cowgill, Sheriff Dickerson, Vandalia Eubanks, or Junior Stubbs) and write a description of Grandma through that person's eyes.
  • A reporter from the "big city" of Peoria comes to Grandma Dowdel's house to cover the death of Shotgun Cheatham. He streaks out of the house when Grandma fires a shotgun at the coffin. Write a newspaper story that describes this entire incident. Give the story an appropriate headline.

Social Studies

  • Joey and Mary Alice visit Grandma Dowdel each summer from 1929 to 1935. Make a timeline of national events that occurred during this time span. Then have each student select one of the events to research in detail. How did the events of the nation during this time affect life in Grandma Dowdel's small Illinois town?
  • John Dillinger was killed in July of 1934. Why was he considered Public Enemy Number One? Why was he called "Robin Hood?" People all over the nation took great interest in his death. Have students use books in the library or the Internet to find out the details of his shooting. Then have them conduct a radio news program about his death. Include interviews with eyewitnesses.


  • Joey and Mary Alice's father belongs to a conservation club. Ask students to find out the various conservation clubs and societies in their state and the nation. Have students contact a local club and ask about volunteer projects, or how to recreate a local ecosystem.


  • Few people could afford cars in 1929, but the banker in Grandma Dowdel's town, L.J. Weidenbach, drives a Hupmobile. Find out the cost and the special features of a 1929 Hupmobile. Make a plan for financing the car for a three-year period. Determine an appropriate interest rate, and calculate the total cost including interest. What are the monthly payments?


  • In the summer of 1934, Joey and Mary Alice search through trunks in Grandma's attic to find items for the church rummage sale. Why are they surprised when they discover valentines? Think about Grandma's personality and her relationship with her grandchildren. Then make a valentine that Grandma might send to Joey and Mary Alice.

Customer Reviews

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Long Way from Chicago 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 89 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The title of my book is A Long Way from Chicago, by Richard Peck, I would have to rate this book four stars. This book deserves four stars because it takes everyday life and turns it into an adventure. The story is about a boy, Joey and his sister Mary Alice as they spend seven summers with their Grandma in the 1930¿s. Events like the Great Depression and World War II are seen through the eyes of this historical fiction family. Each of the stars represents a key aspect in the book. The first star is about the connection between the siblings and their Grandma, at the end of each summer, Mary Alice and Joey are sad that they are leaving their Grandmother and they all do something together. In the summer of 1931, Mary Alice and Joey helped out with the milk wagon every morning. The second star is about the law and order that Grandma had in town. Everyone in the town found out early that Grandma wasn¿t as sweet as most Grandma¿s are, she has a shotgun that hangs above the door and uses it on anyone who would bother her or the siblings like Mrs. Wilcox. The third star is about the dreams that Grandma would give to Mary Alice and Joey. Mary Alice always wanted to fly and Grandma kept telling her never to give up in that dream. The last star is about how the book connects with daily life. Richard Peck does a great job on taking what happened in that time to create a humorous story, making you think you¿re at Grandma¿s house yourself. My name is Ryan Lefler and I am an 8th grade student at Harris Road Middle School in Concord, North Carolina. Some other books that you might find interesting that I¿ve read are On the Wings of Heroes by Richard Peck and My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I choose this novel to accompany a thematic unit on the Great Depression. What a wonderful book to use! The stories of Joey and Mary Alice, and their grandma, are halrious! They will keep studnet's attention while they learn!
GingerDawnHarman More than 1 year ago
A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck A book review by Ginger Dawn Harman Imagine it is summer 1929 and you live in Chicago. The old days of Al Capone, Bugs Moran, and Prohibition are the headline new interest of the day. You are nine and your younger sister is seven. Oh by the way, you just found out that you are being sent to your Grandma Dowdel’s home in the country for the summer. There is plenty of time to anticipate the summer ahead while on the Wabash Railroad’s crack Blue Bird train. Get ready to laugh, cry, and make a special bond with Richard Peck’s novel, A Long Way from Chicago. Richard Peck has been described as an author with magnificent storytelling that is comparable to American humorists Mark Twain and Flannelly O'Connor. I completely agree! Richard Peck has created a memorable world filled with characters who, like Grandma Dowdel, who are larger than life and twice as entertaining. Grandma Dowdel is eccentric, spirited, quick-witted and unafraid of authority. I should also add that she has a mischievous side to her. The story begins in rural Illinois during the Depression; the children arrive at their Grandmothers to encounter their first corpse, Shotgun Cheatham. Word is buzzing at The Coffee Pot Café with many stories surrounding his death. Leave it to Grandma Dowdel to host the viewing and funeral for a stranger who becomes a war hero and philanthropist. Many more exciting adventures happen during those eight years such as spiders and cats that attack Joey and Alice on trips to the privy, the Cowgill boys that bully the townsfolk and sheriff O. B. Dickerson and President of the Chamber of Commerce Earl T. Askew in their underwear while singing The Night that Paddy Murphy died. Richard Peck creates a loveable and unforgettable cast of characters such as; Effie Wilcox, Grandma’s arch enemy who is described as ”cross-eyed ugly” and “has a tongue attached in the middle and flaps at both ends.” Yet the author discreetly weaves a variety of political, social, and moral issues into the fabric of the story. Examples include: the way that Grandma takes care of old Aunt Pus saves Effie Wilcox, the outcome of Grandma switching her gooseberry pie with Mr. Pennypacker’s pie at the county fair, and most of all the love that is shared with a family no matter what is going on in the outside world. The primary point is that the book is first and foremost an entertaining and enjoyable historical novel. Readers will find much food for thought and discussion. The savvy teacher or parent can use this book on many different levels. Our son had no idea what a privy or the depression was, or who mobsters were. The character building discussions of what would you do created many vibrant conversations, and what fun is it to hear your father or friend sing Sweet Adeline. With unforgettable imagery, impeccable writing, and breathtakingly poignant writing, this novel is a masterpiece of a story. The author maintains the pace and drama by providing unique and believable adventures. It is a page turner. My favorite part was the ending, as I lay beside my son in bed and we read this ending many tears were flowing. I guarantee this novel will light up your heart with the special ending as the train chugs by Grandma Dowel’s house! I highly recommend Richard Peck’s young adult novel, A Long Way from Chicago.
jln1017 More than 1 year ago
First of all, this story is definitely aimed towards younger readers. For me, it was a very quick and easy read. Having said that, I also found it sweet and charming, and very much worth the time to read as an adult, too. One of the things I like about this book is its setting and the way it's presented. It has a cozy, old-timey feel to it that makes me think I might have liked to have lived back then. It depicts a time when hard work and struggle were a way of life, but at the same time, there seemed to be a stronger sense of community and neighbors taking care of neighbors than often seems the case these days. Even Grandma, who superficially is rather anti-social and doesn't really take kindly to anyone, deep down, cares about people and tries to do right. She may like to show people up now and again, but it seems to usually be when they are getting a bit too big for their britches in her estimation. As for the presentation, I always like when the narrator presents a story, not as something he is reporting on as it happens, but rather, as an adult looking back on things that happened to him as a child - the events seen through a child's eyes, but reflected on with the wisdom of an adult. It reminds my of the TV show "The Wonder Years" and Jean Shepherd's works, like what the movie "The Christmas Story" was based on, with that similar sort of wry sense of humor about the events included, too. I absolutely adore the character of Grandma (I'm sure she would be externally offended, but inwardly pleased, to hear me use those words), and I love how the kids start out sort of wary of her, but as they get older, they kind of wise up to her and start to read her and play along with the things she does. I also enjoyed the author showing how Grandma rubs off on the kids, particularly Mary Alice. I kind of wish I had a Grandma in my own life (although I love my own two grandmothers to pieces- I just think everyone needs a character like Grandma in their life)! I will say, I actually got really teary eyed at the end, with the last little two page story. I love the characters and, even though it was a short book, by the end, I felt like I was leaving friends. I am glad to be reading A Year Down Yonder, the sequel to this book, immediately after, to get another part of Mary Alice and Grandma's stories. But at the same time, I found myself wondering/imagining what might have happened to some of the other characters later on, like Joey and Ray Veech and others. I'd like to imagine that they lived happily ever after.
Junelilies More than 1 year ago
A Long Way From Chicago, a collection of mini-stories told through the eyes of Joey Dowdel, is the story of Joey’s and Mary Alice’s (Joey’s younger sister) experiences with their independent-thinking, large-personality grandma. Each chapter covers one August spent in their grandma’s small town. Joey and Mary Alice, first despising the idea of spending their summer in a small town with “nothing” to do, grow to understand and love their seemingly unsympathetic grandma more with every summer. Mary Alice and Joey tag along with their grandma in illegal fishing, spooking the town bullies, winning county contests and humbling the proud town folk. This clean, delightful book is one delightful adventure after another--each instigated by this one-of-a-kind grandma. topics introduced: social order, family relationships, growing up, perception of adult behavior Author: Richard Peck Age: 5th-7th grade Pages: about 150
TheLiteraryPhoenix More than 1 year ago
Joey and Mary Alice are being shipped off to their grandmother's house. Every year during summer break, Joey and his little sister Mary Alice are packed off and set on a train to go visit their grandmother. She lives in a small town a good ways off from the wild Chicago life that the kids are used to, and so it takes them a little while to adjust. Every year, though, is a new adventure. From dead bodies to the oldest living settler, every summer is filled with surprises for the kids, who never quite know what their grandmother is up to! This book was a delight. The writing style of A Long Way From Chicago reminds me of Anne of Green Gables. It is sweet, sincere, and shocking at times. The narrator, Ron McLarty, did an incredible job fluctuation between different characters and bringing them all to life. I love the snapshots into Joey's life. Peck presents the different aspects of this book in such as way that it's like sitting with someone over dinner and listening to them reminisce about the good old days. It's charming. And yet, Peck also bring's Grandma's town to life. You really get a sense of the old houses and society circles and the backwoods and the rumbling train that cuts the town in half. That's not always present in this type of book, but it makes the stories much more animated and interesting. Grandma is a hoot. You can't help but love the rascally old woman. When you're first introduced to Grandma, she's correcting some gossip the kids heard in town. A minute later, she's talking to a reporter and giving a completely different story! Grandma's trickery is a consistent theme throughout the book. She's the type of lady who knows what she wants and goes out to get it. And as a reader, you're on the edge of your seat wondering what she's up to now. For all her lying and cheating, Grandma is a good-hearted soul and does things for the right reasons. The last story in the book pulled at my heartstrings. That's all I'm going to say. This is an endearing read for all ages. I don't care if you're 6 or 60 - A Long Way From Chicago is a quick read with great characters and a wonderful spin of tales. Especially for those who are enchanted by the past, this is a rewarding read. I recommend it and it's definitely one I'm glad I experienced!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not boring whoever said that it was
Danele More than 1 year ago
Very fun book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book had me laughing in tears.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good warm hearted read. Enjoyable for all ages!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My mom had read this book with my younger sisters ages 15,13, and 9.  They all loved it and would laugh at nights, as this was the story that they had chosen to read.  They story is about a funny grandma and when push comes to shove, she doesn't budge.  There are funny lines and things that happen.  There are her two grandkids that come and visit her and they are mostly quiet throughout the book and they observe a lot of what their crazy grandma does.  I would recommend it to anyone who wants to laugh while reading!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What I think about this book, is that it is very funny. Reasons I think this book is funny, is because of the Grandma's personality. Like the time when Grandma, Joey, and Maryann was riding in a boat and saw the sheriff's dancing in their underware. OMG..! that was so funny. My favorite character was Grandma. And my favorite part was when she was shooting at her cat... But I recommend this book to anyone. A very Great book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A Long Way From Chicago is a good book in my opinion, the plot of the story was humorous my favorite part of the book was when Mary alicewas dancing on the stage... When they come to visit there gandmother dowdel, they are there they get there releif from the city and they get to spend time with there mamas, but they don't always come when they want too... A Long way from Chicago was a fascinating novel to read...I am going to read the rest of the books.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A Long Way from Chicago is a interesting and entertaining story. The story is about two kids named Mary Alice and Joey. They go to their fun and crazy grandmother's house every summer. At their grandmother's they experience stuff they will never forget. Over all this was a great comedy and is great for a family book or just for kids.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book consists of three main characters grandma, Joey, and Mary Alice. The three of them together have many adventures. I liked the grandma in this book because she was so funny, she didn't care what people thought about her, she was kind to everyone. She just had a funny ways of showing it. That is what I personally think the author is trying to tell us. We should be ourselves, and also help others. I think he is saying that because someone helped him when he was in need. Read this book to learn more adventures with Grandma, Joey, and Mary!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I think that it was a very great book and I recommend it to any book reader. It was so great, I nearly died laughing at the characters. The three main characters are Joey, MaryAnn, last, but not least, my personal favorite, Grandma. She is so funny, especially the little pranks she’s always pulls on everyone. Grandma and her Grandchildren (Joey and MaryAnn) have great and fantastic adventures. Like the time when they were rolling down the river, and saw a bunch of men singing and dancing around in their underwear....OMG! That was so hilarious. My favorite scene was when Grandma's Tom cat hoped out of the coffin and freaked everybody out, as Grandma was shooting her shotgun like crazy making people run away in all different directions. But this book is a very tremendous book. It will have you rolling on the floor laughing. So I strongly recommend anyone to read this book, I enjoyed it very much myself.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The reason why I liked it because it was a action filled book but it had times that it was a serious book. The really interesting moments with gradma dowdel shooting the casket with her winchester. This is why I liked the book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A Long Way from Chicago was a excellent book. It was funny, dramatic, like when Grandma shot the coffin after it had moved. The story was dramatic due to the awkward moments in the story. When grandma knew that those boys were going to break in she pretended that she left. Then the boys got what was coming to them.I liked the story because of all the great story's,like how the story was produced. rote,and how it was structered.The story had its off and on moments. when they got on the Blue Bird train.On there way back to chicago, at the end of the story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book, A Long Way From Chicago is really good. I read it with my class and it is hilarious and also very good. The setting takes place in a small farm town in Illinois. It is about a grandma that was really weird and did go crazy at times but she had really good reasons, she can also be kinda scary but friendly and trust worthy. The one thing I do know about her is SHE HAS A SHOT GUN AND KNOWS HOW TO USE IT!. But she does make a very good goose berry pie. Mary Alice and Joey Dowdel visits Grandma every summer in Illinois on a small farm just off Main street. In the end Mary Alice and Joey have made many memories. I know I liked this book and I hope you do, too.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book was well written just not a story that I could really get into to.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A Long Way From Chicago is a,in my mind,a very good book.I found the plot of the story interesting,and funny. One of my faveorite parts of the book had to be when the main character and narrator,Joey,Mary Alice,and Grandma Dowdel where poaching and saw the sheriffs in thier underwear.That was also when Joey stated that Mary Alice's eyes"Bugged out".The chapters were short and single stories,and I found them very easy to read.I think A long Way From Chicago is a great book.
redneck65 More than 1 year ago
A Long Way From Chicago A Long Way From Chicago was a really good book and I really enjoyed it. This book has everything from funniness to sadness. I loved the characters Joey, Mary Alice, and Grandma Dowdel. This book is about Joey and his sister Mary Alice who go to their Grandma Dowdel’s house nine times over nine years. I liked the entire story but the funniest part was when Grandma Dowdel took that old Winchester Shotgun and fired a hole into that wooden coffin! But the saddest part was when Joey sent a telegram to Grandma Dowdel saying “I will be coming though on a troop train watch for me”. The town was dark but every light in Grandma’s house was glowing and there she was waving and I waved back.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO. A long way from chicago was a excellent book it was funny,dramtic,like when grandma shot the coffinafter it had (moved). The story was dramtic due to the ackward moments in the story.Like when grandma knew that those boys were going to break in,so she pretened that she left,and then the boys got what was coming to them.I liked the story because of all the great storys,like how the story was produced ,wrote,and how it was structered.The story had its off and on moments .Like when grandma alledgley forgot to drown the kittin,and it randomly apperaed in the kids clothes baske,when they got on the Blue Bird train.On there way back to chicago, at the end of the story.......................