Home School Book Review, July 03, 2011
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In 1929, nine-year-old Joey Dowdel and his seven-year-old sister Mary Alice, who live in Chicago, IL, make the first of seven annual trips to spend a week with their Grandma Dowdel in southern Illinois, somewhere between Chicago and St. Louis, MO, during summer vacation. Each chapter covers one year’s visit. And in those years, Joey and Mary Alice get to see and help Grandma give a funeral for Shotgun Cheatham, the town reprobate; get even with the Cowgill boys for their vandalism; trap catfish to feed the traveling unemployed men hit hard by the Depression; try to win the pie contest at the county fair; assist Vandalia Eubanks and Junior Stubbs to elope and get married ala Romeo and Juliet style; use the local rummage sale to keep Mrs. Elsie Wilcox’s house from being foreclosed; and observe the town’s centennial celebration.
The year 1935 was the last visit because Joey was fifteen and the next year would be in line for a summer job in Chicago. However, there is a final chapter, almost an “afterword,” for 1942 when he was going into the air corps to fight in World War II, and passed by Grandma Dowdel’s house on the train. The idea of “A Novel in Stories” is that the plot progresses in a series of short stories. The first chapter actually had appeared as a short story in Twelve Shots: Stories About Guns edited by Harry Mazer in 1997. I first heard of this book through Scholastic and Children’s Book of the Month clubs. But what I heard did not necessarily impress me. Of course, Scholastic and Children’s B.M.O.C. both try to make the books they sell sound as good as possible, and their synopsis of A Long Way from Chicago was, “Grandma Dowdel lies, cheats, trespasses, and wakes up her sleepy little town��"always for a good cause.” To me, it did not sound very good. It was a Newbery Honor book in 1999, and its sequel, A Year Down Yonder, in which Mary Alice has been sent to spend the whole 1937-1938 school year with Grandma Dowdel while Joey is out West planting trees through a government work program, won the Newbery Medal in 2001. This does not surprise me, as being a Newbery winner nowadays does NOT mean that a book is good, or even fit to read for that matter. Grandma Dowdel returns in the year 1958, without Joey and Mary Alice, in a later book A Season of Gifts.
It is true that there is a great deal of humor in the situations found in the book, but to see the humor one must overlook the fact that Grandma tells lies (some of which are described as whoppers), brews her own beer during prohibition, sets illegal fish traps, flaunts the law (even though the law in this case is somewhat less than perfect), cheats at the pie contest, and starts false rumors. In examining the book from a Biblical worldview, it has been suggested that one’s view of the book will depend on his personal viewpoint on seeing humor in actions that are not always above reproach. I think that the underlying basis of the book may be encapsulated by the statement, “It was a story that grew in the telling in one of those little towns where there’s always time to ponder all the different kinds of truth.” Rather than a search for absolute truth, even in fiction, the idea of “different kinds of truth” sounds more like humanistic relativism. Also, when Joey asks Grandma about the punishment for setting illegal traps, she replies, “Nothin’ if you don’t get caught,” which Joey concludes “was an example of the way Grandma reasoned.” All in all, this is not a really bad book��"I’ve read much worse posing as children’s literature, but it is filled with questionable behavior which, yes, is “for a good cause,” but that’s part of the problem. The implication is that the end justifies the means, and people with a Biblical worldview know that this just isn’t so.