Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Critical Analysis of Books by Richard Peck

Richard Peck was inspired by Mark Twain and his writings, which partly led Peck to become a writer. Peck was most impressed with the way Mark Twain could write poetry. Even though Peck does not write poetry, he has adapted some principles learned through Twain's work. In the books, Fair Weather and A Long Way From Chicago, Peck has provided young adults the opportunity to learn about historical events during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s taking place in the Midwest.

The book, Fair Weather, takes place during Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition. Some may find this book more interesting than The Devil in the White City because of Peck’s compelling descriptions of Chicago’s World Fair instead of an overload of facts. Here’s a glimpse of Peck’s voluptuous literature as he encapsulates the World’s Fair in the voice of Rosie Beckett:

“As we turned up into the sky, you didn’t notice the straining and the clanking of that terrible wheel anymore. The great exposition began to fan out below us, and all the pavilions were like frosted wedding cakes. It was the White City on blue lagoons against the endless lake. Golden statues caught the last of the setting sun. Then like sudden morning the electric lights came on. If I could show you anything, I would show you that. The searchlight turned, and everything was washed in light like there could never be darkness again. Just at that moment when the fair was a field of diamonds beneath my feet, the fair and all the world belonged to me” (Fair Weather, p.131-132).

In Fair Weather, the Beckett Family lives in Southern Illinois and one day Mrs. Beckett’s sister, Euterpe, sends the family tickets to the World’s Fair. The parents must stay behind and tend to the farm to keep supporting the family, but the children, Rosie and LeRoy, and their grandfather, Si Fuller, go to visit Aunt Euterpe in Chicago. The children are very apprehensive at first because they think Chicago is a dangerous town where people get shot. But once they visit and learn more about the city and what Chicago has to offer, there is no turning back!

The book, A Long Way from Chicago, takes place a bit later during the Great Depression. The Dowdel children, Joey and Mary Alice, are sent to visit their grandmother who lives somewhere south of Chicago and north of St. Louis. The children visit their grandmother every summer for eight years. At first they are very annoyed with their grandmother’s behavior and think she is “older than dirt.” She likes to walk a fine line with the law and definitely expresses her opinion in a sneaky but mean way at times. But as each summer passes by that Joey and Mary Alice spend with their grandmother, they see more clearly a clever and more kind-hearted woman who deeply loves her grandchildren. As a side note, some reviewers have seen similarities between this book and Gary Paulsen's Harris and Me: A Summer Remembered. One reviewer states, "They both involve eccentric relatives, are episodic in nature and laugh out loud funny." Click here to learn more about Paulsen.

Here’s an excerpt from A Long Way from Chicago to illustrate Peck’s figurative language and Grandma Dowdel’s blunt nature, in the voice of Grandma Dowdel.

“It happened back in 1871. And it all come to pass because of the Great Fire of Chicago. The town of Decatur was sending a special train full of volunteers up to fight that fire…Somehow, the train full of firefighters got on the same track as a Wabash freight train. They met head on. … Killed a brakeman on the freight train and both engineers. Oh, you never saw such a mess. I was only a babe in arms, but I remember it well. My maw walked the tracks down there and held me up to see it. They’d pried the locomotives apart and taken out the dead. But it was a sight to behold. They said the dead bodies looked like they’d been fed through a sausage grinder” (A Long Way from Chicago, p.86).

Both books depict life and historical events in or around the Chicagoland area. What is interesting in both books is that neither residence, The Beckett family or Grandma Dowdel, have a specific address. The Beckett family lives in rural Christian County, IL and Grandma Dowdel lives somewhere south of Chicago and north of St. Louis. Perhaps Peck's grand plan here was to illustrate the simplisity of life compared to the hectic nature of living in a big city like Chicago. What is also interesting is that neither set of parents in both stories are a major part of the plot. The children in both books are sent off to visit relatives. In Fair Weather, the children visit their Aunt in Chicago for one summer to see Chicago’s World Fair. In the other book, A Long Way from Chicago, the children ride the train south of Chicago to visit their Grandmother for eight summers during the Great Depression.

Interestingly, Peck presents a prominent older figure in both his books, most likely to instill tradition and understanding of past time to the next of kin and their next of kin. Peck suggests that the aged figure is for “suburban readers living in age-segregated subdivisions” and for “readers in cement cities where the old fear the streets.” We learn about Buffalo Bill and Grandpa fighting in the war together while reading Fair Weather. But in A Long Way From Chicago, we learn all about Grandma's idiosyncrasies while living in rural Illinois from 1929-1935. She likes to make up her own rules and toys with the law. Grandma Dowdel is capable of anything, but over time we find out she is most capable of displaying love to her grandchildren.

Richard Peck is a phenomenal writer and captivates his audience through his words and visual imagery. His books are narrated through the voice of one of the children in each book. Peck provides graphics throughout the book, Fair Weather, most likely because he depicts events at Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition. In the book, A Long Way from Chicago, each chapter covers one summer in time and Peck illustrates the life of people in a rural southern town of Chicago in more descriptive words to challenge your imagination instead of using graphics.

These stories helped me put in perspective what life was like in the late 1800's and early 1900’s; I think students will also reap the same benefit. However, although I am not a historian and Peck did not grow up in the time frame, I do wonder how accurate the depiction of life, climate, and relationships were. Perhaps, just like all historians, the references of events are usually up for interpretation.

Overall, I was mesmerized by Peck’s visual imagery of “the olden days” and enjoyed learning about history in a captivating, fun atmosphere he portrayed in his books. I think these are great books for students to read and learn from. Teachers can incorporate history while also teaching language arts techniques and characteristics of a novel, includeing setting, conflict and foreshadowing. Students will dive into the world of an imaginative family but in doing so, they will have the opportunity to learn about true historical events. Richard Peck captivates his audience and targets his books for young adults. What a great way to learn about history!