Friday, October 14, 2016

A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

Earlier this year, we listened to a collection of short stories by Richard Peck. (Past Perfect Present Tense) In his excellent introduction to each section, he explained the history of each story, and in some cases, what happened after he wrote it. Several of the stories inspired entire books. One of those, “Shotgun Cheatham’s Last Night Above Ground,” eventually grew into this book. 

The central character is Grandma, a corpulent old lady who lives in a very small town in the middle of nowhere “a long way from Chicago.” The narrator and his little sister go spend seven consecutive summers with her, from 1929 to 1935. In the original story, Grandma pranks a big city reporter who comes to do a “human interest” story on a local grifter with an interesting name who has died. My kids loved the story, so I put the longer novel on the list.

Each year takes a chapter, and recounts one incident in that summer. As the kids grow, so does the narrative. Joe and Mary Alice go from little kids to teens, and the stories change with them. As in the original, the stories are both humorous and shocking. Grandma is a horrible influence in many ways. She feuds with her frenemy Effie Wilcox - but takes action to reverse the foreclosure on Effie’s house. She poaches fish right under the nose of the inebriated sheriff, then shamelessly blackmails him. She is a talented liar who never hesitates to use her skills to accomplish her goals. She lights off cherry bombs and fires her shotgun indoors. As Mary Alice says, “I don’t think grandma’s a very good influence on us.”

And yet, she is compassionate in her own way, caring for the needs of an elderly woman, helping an abused young woman escape her controlling mother, and putting some local hooligans in their place after they start vandalizing the property of elderly town residents.

She just holds to her own peculiar code of ethics, more or less. There is a good bit of Tom Sawyer in her, the eccentricity only heightened by age and widowhood.

“‘Never trust an ugly woman. She's got a grudge against the world,' said Grandma who was no oil painting herself.”

Richard Peck consistently writes with a light touch. I think he tends to let his characters dictate the plot, and just follows them where they go. As Past Perfect Present Tense showed, he has a wide range, from humor to ghost stories, from period settings to animal tales. Throughout it all, his characters tend to be complex, flawed, and interesting. He also doesn’t shy away from real issues. One memorable scene is where the nephew of the local banker recites a rather sexist poem (which I can’t find, but which seems very 19th Century). Peck doesn’t lecture, but gently elicits the reactions of Mary Alice and Grandma. There is a certain amount of grit and realism, but never for its own sake. Ever since my second daughter introduced us to one of his mouse stories, I have appreciated Peck as an author with skill and imagination.

This book isn’t a bad place to start with Peck. It appeals to a range of children, being neither too serious for young readers nor boring to the older ones.


Other Richard Peck books we have listened to:

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