“Hey everybody! I know someone who wrote a book.” I say that in jest and I think the author of the book I’m about to review will appreciate it. This review or summary is long overdue as I read “The Train of Small Mercies” a year ago when it was published, but in the midst of all the election hoopla I found myself thumbing through it again.
I am not a literary critic nor do I portend to be, but I know a good thing when I see it. I may be biased in the praise of my childhood friend’s first novel, but I can truly say it is warranted. So this really isn’t a review at all, it’s a recommendation to pick up this brilliant work of fiction about a very true part of American history.
The Train of Small Mercies was inspired by Paul Fusco’s actual collection of photographs of onlookers along the route of the train carrying recently assassinated Robert Francis Kennedy (RFK) to his final resting place in Washington, DC. David Rowell skillfully creates six different stories in six different places with different agendas and varying points of view while weaving together what they all share in this very tumultuous and unsure time for America in 1968.
The author creatively conjures real, living, breathing, feeling characters based on his study of the photographs that so inspired him. Each vignette is a different story that interlaces their lives and reactions to the death of this symbol of hope for our country. Rowell does this without any heavy-handed bias or hidden subtext or political bent; just very human stories that bring to mind this era as if it were today.
When you read Small Mercies you’ll probably first notice the chapter breakdown. Each chapter’s title is the name of a state and that state is where the main characters live. The states are along the route of the train that carried Bobby Kennedy from New York to Washington, after his body was flown from Los Angeles, CA. Each chapter reveals something and builds a sort of suspense, then the next chapter or state’s group of characters progress the story, then back to another state, and back to where another left off and so on.
I found this style very agreeable for some reason. It allows you to focus on the characters and really create images as you read while still monitoring the timeline of the book as a whole. It is conveyed very visually and the author even says his narrative style is influenced by the movie “American Graffiti.” Even though this story is set almost half a century ago it really is a timeless novel regarding the hopes, fears, uncertainty, and volatility that still pervades society today.
One of the characters, a wounded Vietnam vet, really brings to the fore the pain and reality of a country at war. A newly hired train steward dealing with racial tensions and dreams of equality is another storyline. A household politically divided yet another. These are just a few of the experiences we go through, each handled with intelligence, heart, and finesse. While every character goes through an arc we leave them as we found them, neither unrealized nor complete, still uncertain, a snapshot in time. An expert choice by Rowell not to belabor and overwork every “‘what if’ and ‘here’s what happened to,’” especially in a debut novel.
Rowell manages to lighten the load too, so to speak, during this trip, by his infusion of pop culture references with many nods to movies, television shows and popular songs of the time. So much is added to the read that I won’t even harp on a harmless err in a fact about the Mustang, I’ll overlook it as poetic license. Even though it was so many years ago, as we know, generations and cultural influences overlap. He uses his incredible wit and humor throughout, while inserting plenty of tense and suspenseful situations.
The settings are varied, of course, they’re in different states. Sometimes we are on board the train, other times we’re at a backyard pool party, another time we’re kids again playing pretend, then we’re back on the train in the dining car. Knowing the author I enjoyed what I call Easter eggs; various real things such as locations, side stories, food brands, restaurants, songs, characters’ names, etc. referenced by the author that let you behind the curtain a little.
‘Small Mercies’ is a bit of a history lesson being that the main plot is focused on true events; and I found it to be very informative and interesting on a purely historical level. I knew about some of these events if only a little, but appreciated the many reminders that history buffs relish from a satisfying read. For instance, I had forgotten that pro football star, Rosey Grier, was with Kennedy during the fateful night and supposedly attempted, as did others, to thwart this tragedy. We also are reminded of what Senator Kennedy exclaims after being shot, “Is everybody alright?” Another obvious one was the whole crux of the story, I had no idea that millions of people gathered along the tracks of this route to witness this particular train go by. I can now see how David’s mind must have started to churn when inspired by the Fusco pictures.
Let me wind down my review by saying, Bravo! to my friend David Rowell. How relevant this book is now, which captures an era, a time when our country needed hope among such turmoil and reflects just how much we need it today more than ever. This book is very well researched, rich and filled with variety, depth, and texture. Congratulations on a job well done, thank you for this excellent book. If you want to go on a very interesting, meaningful, and historical train ride, you should really read “The Train of Small Mercies.”