This was a forced read for me. I needed a middlegrade book with an unusual narrative structure for a lecture I’m working on, and my mentor suggested this one. I had never heard of it before. Honestly, I groaned when I looked it up online because I have a love/hate relationship with middlegrade fiction. Some of it is brilliant, but a lot of it is too silly for my adult brain. The cover of this book looks juvenile. The synopsis sounds extremely juvenile. I braced myself to grit my teeth and plow through it . . .
I’ve never been so surprised by a book.
A Long Way from Chicago is a composite novel. Each of the nine chapters is a linked short story about Joey, Mary Alice, and their eccentric grandmother. The book starts in 1929, when Joey is nine years old, and ends in 1942, when he’s eighteen. Each story is about an adventure he has when he leaves Chicago to spend a week in a rural town with Grandma.
“Adventure” again makes this book sound juvenile, but that’s the best word for it. The adventures are not unrealistic. Joey talks about the first time he sees a dead body, the first time he flies in a plane, and his desperate attempt to raise $2 for driving lessons. His grandmother helps him achieve his goals and learn important lessons—in her own bizarre way.
“‘Never trust an ugly woman. She's got a grudge against the world,' said Grandma, who was no oil painting herself.” – A Long Way from Chicago
The narrator’s voice is what makes this book readable for adults. Joey is an old man looking back at his childhood, so the voice in all of the stories is mature. The author never talks down to the reader. Also, the stories have a very historical feel to them. Small-town 1930s life is captured in a vivid, believable way. The town is struggling with Depression-era poverty/alcoholism/trust issues, but the problems aren’t shoehorned into the stories for educational purposes. The setting feels very natural. I’ve been reading a ton of historical fiction lately, and this little book is one of the better middlegrade historical novels I’ve read.
“The years went by, and Mary Alice and I grew up, slower than we wanted to, faster than we realized.” - A Long Way from Chicago
Grandma is eccentric, but never in a childlike, unrealistic way. She’s actually one of the most complex adult characters I’ve come across in children’s fiction. I totally believe a woman like Grandma could exist. She values her privacy and hates small-town gossip, but she’s not afraid to step in when something goes wrong. She’s a strong woman who has a unique way of solving problems. Basically, she’s an elderly, cantankerous, Depression-era Robin Hood.
I enjoyed every story in this book (which I don’t say often about short story collections), but these are the standouts:
In “Shotgun Cheatham’s Last Night Above Ground,” Grandma invents an impressive history for a man who died in poverty.
“The Day of Judgment” starts with Grandma reluctantly agreeing to enter a pie-making contest and ends with Grandma scamming her way onto an airplane.
In “A One-Woman Crime Wave,” Grandma commits a series of small crimes in order to prepare a feast for the homeless drifters who wander through town.
“I don’t think Grandma’s a very good influence on us.” – A Long Way from Chicago
I’m struggling to come up with something I didn’t like. I guess, for adult readers, the stories are a bit predictable and repetitive. They all follow the same basic outline: kids go to Grandma’s house; Grandma does something potentially deadly; the reader finds out that Grandma has a good reason for what she does. The repetition isn’t a criticism, though, because this is a children’s book, and I don’t think I would have noticed it as a child.
A Long Way from Chicago is a quick, entertaining read. I guess the lesson here is “Don’t judge a book by its cover . . . or its synopsis.”