A Long Way from Chicago: A Novel in Stories

In this historical novel of the Great Depression, Joe recalls how he and his sister, Mary Alice, traveled from Chicago to spend a week with their widowed grandmother in rural Illinois every August from 1929 (when Joey was 9 and Mary Alice was 7) through 1935. Grandma Dowdel is one tough cookie. She’s not intimidated by anyone or anything, from the local teen hoodlums to the sheriff or the rich banker and his high-society wife. “Tough as an old boot, or so we thought,” says Joey. A large, energetic woman with her hair in a bun at the back of her head, Grandma does her own baking, cans her own tomatoes and makes her own soap. She can grab a snake and break its neck with one quick snap.

Joey and Mary Alice decide that Grandma isn’t exactly a saintly influence. She’s not above cheating to win first prize at the county fair or telling the most outrageous lies while her grandkids stare at each other in astonishment. Yet she has a warm heart underneath her ornery shell and devious schemes: she stands up for her grandkids and for every underdog who comes her way. She hoodwinks the banker’s wife in order to retrieve a friend’s house from foreclosure. She helps a downtrodden young woman elope. Grandma also defies the local authorities by illegally fishing—and from the sheriff’s rowboat—so she can feed dozens of homeless men passing through looking for work, despite the sheriff’s sign warning drifters not to stop in the town.
The laugh-out-loud humor, colorful characters and wild shenanigans are reminiscent of Mark Twain. Readers will love this portrait of a larger-than-life grandma and a rural town in the 1930s.