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Monday, December 19, 2011

Review: 'The Train of Small Mercies'

1968 just about broke America's heart with assassinations, riots and war protests. After Robert Kennedy was killed in Los Angeles, apparently on the brink of winning the Democratic nomination for the presidency, tens of thousands mourned the loss of promise and felt sorrow for his pregnant widow and other family members.                                                          

The funeral train that carried RFK's body from New York to Washington, D.C., for interment at Arlington National Cemetary became one of those great national events when people come together. It is possible that 2 million people waited along the tracks of the route to pay their respects. For photographs of that journey, there is a poignant archive of Paul Fusco's work.

David Rowell uses the train's voyage as the focal point of his first novel, The Train of Small Mercies, and through the stories of many characters presents a narrative of quiet hope that arrives when least expected. It is not always evident along the journey that any of the characters will see hope, and not everyone has a happy ending. The climax of many characters' stories is melodramatic, especially for two cases when things go drastically wrong at the end.

Among those encountered during the journey are a not-quite-young married couple celebrating their first pool party with another couple in a working class version of John Cheever's world, a boy who takes an unexpected fishing holiday with his father, and a mother who wants to see the funeral train despite her husband's political stance. The couple with their above-ground pool embody Rowell's most successful story that reflects the passing of the Kennedy promise. The boy who goes fishing and the mother, who takes her young daughter on a long car ride to pass the time before the train goes by, show different perspectives in how the dynamics between a husband and wife can affect their children in drastic ways. Their stories are interesting, but it's not certain why they would be tied to the train. They might have been even stronger had they been the dual focus of a book not tied to a great national loss. Here, they do not resonate but rather only rise to the level of provoking a "oh, my" moment before getting lost in the maelstrom of the many other narratives in Rowell's book.

Among the other stories are those of a young Irish girl who was set for an interview as nanny to the Kennedy babies, and the son of a proud railroad porter whose first ride on the job is on the train itself. Their stories are nearly lost in the criss-cross rush.

And that's the problem with this book. The stories are not all fully developed. Some look on early to eventually take on more significance than they do. The more significant stories are not allowed room to breathe and blossom. In real life, these characters would not have necessarily have that privilege of being given the space they deserve. But because an author took the time to give them names, they deserve that space. Even on their own, most of the stories would work. But if they are to be parts of something greater, such as the passing of an era in American politics and society, they do need to contribute to that something greater. Only one of these stories does that. The others are reduced to the level of faces not clearly seen when a train goes by, no matter how slowly it's going down the tracks.

©2011 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission


  1. Too bad the book didn't totally work , because it sounds like a powerful premise.

  2. What a fantastically insightful review.

  3. Col, I was so excited about the premise. In 1968, my family moved from Washington state to North Carolina (we only lasted the summer before going back to the Northwest). But we were in D.C. the night that train arrived, and we went to RFK's gravesite two days after the funeral. So I know how important he was to people.

    Still, Rowell shows promise. I hope he writes more and we get to see that promise.

  4. Emma, you do me honour. I guess it's because that event was important to me as a child. And because I can see that Rowell has great potential. Thank you.

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