A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder

These two stories by Richard Peck offer a lively picture of the depression years in small-town America. Joey and his sister Mary Alice describe the time they spent with their grandmother, a feisty, terrifying, and goodhearted woman.
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Updated on: August 2, 2001
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Discussion Questions for Both Books
  1. Describe Joey and Mary Alice's relationship with Grandma Dowdel. Discuss why their parents thought it so important that they get to know their Grandma. What kind of mother do you think Grandma Dowdel was to Joey and Mary Alice's father? Joey says that Grandma frightens his mother-Grandma's daughter-in-law. What characteristics of Grandma make her so frightening?
  2. Joe Dowdel is an adult sharing his memories of Grandma Dowdel. He says, "Are all my memories true? Every word, and growing truer with the years." (p. 1) What does Joe mean when he says, "growing truer with years?" What kind of relationship do you think Joe Dowdel has with his grandchildren? Discuss whether the summers spent with Grandma Dowdel might have shaped the kind of grandfather he became.
  3. Why does Mary Alice say, "I don't think Grandma's a very good influence on us"? (p. 61) How is she a good influence on her grandchildren? Ask the students to debate whether Grandma is a "bad influence" or a "good role model."
  4. Grandma Dowdel never seems to shows affection. How do you know that she loves her grandchildren?
  5. Why does Grandma Dowdel display the body of Shotgun Cheatham in her parlor? Discuss what Grandma means when she says, "A rumor is sometimes truth on the trail." (p. 115)
  6. During their visit in 1931, Joey and Mary Alice realize that Grandma Dowdel runs illegal fish traps. Why is it important to have hunting and fishing laws? What department in state government is responsible for monitoring such laws? They vow never to tell their dad about this. Discuss what other things Joey and Mary Alice discover about Grandma that they are likely to keep to themselves. Why does Sheriff Dickerson call Grandma a "one-woman crime-wave"? (p. 57)
  7. One of Grandma's weapons is blackmail. Discuss the numerous times in the novel that she uses blackmail to help people. What does the phrase "larger than life" mean? How does this fit Grandma?
  8. During which summer do you think Joey and Mary Alice learn the true character of Grandma?
  9. Joey says, "As the years went by, we'd seem to see a different woman every summer." (p.1) Discuss whether it's Grandma that changes, or Joey and Mary Alice.

Lesson Plans

Language Arts

  • In the summer of 1930, Mary Alice brings her jump rope to Grandma's house and occupies herself by jumping rope to rhymes. Ask students to use books in the library or the Internet to locate popular jump rope rhymes. Then have them create a jump rope rhyme about Grandma.
  • The reader sees Grandma Dowdel through Joey Dowdel's eyes. Discuss how a reader's impression of a character is shaped by point-of-view. Ask students to select another character in the novel (i.e. Effie Wilcox, Mr. Cowgill, Sheriff Dickerson, Vandalia Eubanks, or Junior Stubbs) and write a description of Grandma through that person's eyes.
  • A reporter from the "big city" of Peoria comes to Grandma Dowdel's house to cover the death of Shotgun Cheatham. He streaks out of the house when Grandma fires a shotgun at the coffin. Write a newspaper story that describes this entire incident. Give the story an appropriate headline.

Social Studies

  • Joey and Mary Alice visit Grandma Dowdel each summer from 1929 to 1935. Make a timeline of national events that occurred during this time span. Then have each student select one of the events to research in detail. How did the events of the nation during this time affect life in Grandma Dowdel's small Illinois town?
  • John Dillinger was killed in July of 1934. Why was he considered Public Enemy Number One? Why was he called "Robin Hood?" People all over the nation took great interest in his death. Have students use books in the library or the Internet to find out the details of his shooting. Then have them conduct a radio news program about his death. Include interviews with eyewitnesses.


  • Joey and Mary Alice's father belongs to a conservation club. Ask students to find out the various conservation clubs and societies in their state and the nation. Have students contact a local club and ask about volunteer projects, or how to recreate a local ecosystem.


  • Few people could afford cars in 1929, but the banker in Grandma Dowdel's town, L.J. Weidenbach, drives a Hupmobile. Find out the cost and the special features of a 1929 Hupmobile. Make a plan for financing the car for a three-year period. Determine an appropriate interest rate, and calculate the total cost including interest. What are the monthly payments?

  • In the summer of 1934, Joey and Mary Alice search through trunks in Grandma's attic to find items for the church rummage sale. Why are they surprised when they discover valentines? Think about Grandma's personality and her relationship with her grandchildren. Then make a valentine that Grandma might send to Joey and Mary Alice.

    Internet Resources

    Federal Writer's Project Administration (WPA)
    Grade Levels: Intermediate, Middle, Secondary
    Learn all about this government-sponsored program set up by President Roosevelt during the Great Depression.

    The Great Depression
    Grade Levels: Intermediate, Middle, Secondary
    View a timeline of the Great Depression and read about the causes behind this difficult time in U.S. history.

    The Great Depression Photo Essay
    Grade Levels: Intermediate, Middle, Secondary
    This extensive collection of photographs shows how the standard of living in the United States declined after the stock market crash of 1929.

    Richard Peck Biography
    Grade Levels: All
    Read all about this Newbery Award winning author, including his life as a child in Decatur, IL.

    Books by Richard Peck

    Amanda/Miranda, 2001
    Are You in the House Alone?, 2000
    Blossom Culp and the Sleep of Death, 1987
    Close Enough to Touch, 1991
    Don't Look and It Won't Hurt, 1999
    The Dreadful Future of Blossom Culp, 1987
    Dreamland Lake, 2000
    Father Figure, 1979
    The Ghost Belonged to Me, 1983
    Ghosts I Have Been, 1987
    The Great Interactive Dream Machine, 1998
    Last Safe Place on Earth, 1996
    A Long Way from Chicago, 1998
    Lost in Cyberspace, 1995
    Monster Night at Grandma's House, 1979
    Pictures That Storm Inside My Head, 1976
    Princess Ashley, 1987
    Remembering the Good Times, 1986
    Representing Super Doll, 1997
    Secrets of the Shopping Mall, 1991
    Something for Joey, 1990
    Soup for the President, 1991
    Strays like Us, 2000
    Through a Brief Darkness, 1997
    A Year Down Yonder, 2000

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