"A Long Way from Chicago" Study Guide: Setting, Character & Theme

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A Long Way from Chicago is written from Joey’s point of view when he is older and thinking about his memories of the times that he spent with his grandmother and sister. Joey, Mary Alice and Grandma Dowdel take part in many humorous and questionable activities that make the reader laugh out loud.


Joey and Mary Alice spend a week with their grandma in August. The historical time period is the Depression. The chapters in the book go from the year 1929 through 1942. The times are tough – people lose their homes to the bank and drifters come through town looking for work. The town even bars the unemployed from staying too long, and the sheriff is always on hand to make sure that they keep moving. The town is small and everybody knows everybody else’s business. The gossip always starts spreading at The Coffee Pot, which is the town diner.

Grandma Dowdel’s house is on the edge of the small rural southern Illinois town and is definitely “old school”. It has a privy, which is an outhouse or a bathroom outside with no flushing water. Grandma uses a hand pump to get water in the house, and has her milk delivered by a horse drawn wagon. There is a creepy cob house that is used for storage and houses a big tom cat, and the attic holds many interesting items from Grandma’s past.

Main Characters

Grandma Dowdel - Grandma Dowdel is fiercely independent and a hard worker. Joey tells that “…she liked to keep to herself to herself, which was uphill work in a town like that” and that “she wasn’t what you would call a popular woman.” Her brusque nature makes the ladies of town somewhat nervous. She wears dresses and an apron to keep her clean. When she wants to go for a hike, she will put pants on underneath her dress to hike and fish. This grandma is not the “drop everything for her grandkids and spoil them” type. She makes her two grandchildren do chores but through her actions not outright affection, she lets her grandchildren know that she loves them.

Grandma Dowdel is not above blackmail to get what she wants or to have justice served. She feeds the hungry transient workers fish that she “illegally” caught, defends Shotgun Cheatham’s reputation to a city-slicker reporter by telling a “whopper” of a lie, and helps a young girl escape the clutches of her abusive mother so that she could marry her true love.

Joey Dowdel - He is the narrator who goes from being called Joey to Joe and goes from dreading his annual visit to looking forward to it. His last memories of his grandma in the book are of him waving to her sitting on her porch while he was on a train going off to basic training for World War II. Joey is a city boy who learns how to drive and receives his first airplane ride while he is with Grandma. He sees Shotgun Cheatham dead in a coffin at Grandma’s house but had not seen a dead body in Chicago during the days of John Dillinger.

Mary Alice Dowdel - She at first believes that Grandma is not a very good influence on them and begs to bring her girlfriends to Grandma’s house. However, over the years, Grandma grows on her. She befriends and helps save Vandalia, the young lover who is terrorized by her abusive mother. In the earlier chapters, Mary Alice takes her tap shoes to Grandma’s house. She ends up dancing the waltz during a centennial celebration and wearing Grandma’s wedding dress. She and her car-fixing partner win first prize.


A Long Way from Chicago has several themes:

  • Growing up is obviously a main theme. Both Joey and Mary Alice learn to appreciate and love their Grandma for who she is through their annual visits. They grow from the ages of nine and seven to their young teens. Each visit shows their growth and their greater understanding of Grandma.
  • Family is another obvious theme. The grandchildren are loyal to their unusual Grandma and help her in all of her escapades.
  • Do the right thing is also a theme. However, is it right to use blackmail or to lie to get justice? Grandma Dowel thought so.
  • Friendship is a theme. Grandma saves Effie Wilcox’s house from the bank, even though she declares her an enemy earlier in the book.
  • Small town life and community is also a theme that Joey and Mary Alice learn about with each visit.