Saturday, December 3, 2011

Review: The Train of Small Mercies by David Rowell

Author: David Rowell
Publisher/Format: G.P. Putnam's Sons, pprbk galley 272 pgs
Year of publication: 2011
Subject: hope and despair
Setting: Eastern seaboard of US from New York to Wash D.C.
Genre: Literary fiction
Source: Early Reviewers program of LibraryThing

In the Train of Small Mercies, David Rowell essentially gives us a snapshot of a single day in the lives of six very different people.  The date is never given, but those of us who are old enough to remember will never forget the events of June 1968 and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.  Using the day of RFK's funeral and the interminable trip of his funeral train from New York to Washington D.C. as the backdrop, the author introduces us to a cast of characters who have nothing in common except their struggles with personal hopes, dreams, disappointments and disasters.

We meet Lionel Chase, a young college student who, on his first day working as a Pullman porter, is assigned to serve aboard the Kennedy train.  He'd really rather be with his pregnant girlfriend in North Carolina.  Michael Colvert, a fifth-grader whose father is quite absent from his life, comes dangerously close to disaster as he and his buddies play on the rails waiting to catch a glimpse of the casket as the train rolls by; Delores King, a huge Kennedy fan married to one of RFK's most ardent detractors, sneaks her young daughter out of the house to go see the train, and in doing so, puts her daughter in grave peril.

Further along Edwin Rupp is having a pool party, and hoping this opening of his personal swimming venue will somehow put some spice back into his sagging relationship with his wife.  Their yard not only has a new pool, but the train tracks run right along the fence line, perfect for viewing the rolling funeral cortege. We also follow Maeve McDerdon, Irish nanny extraordinaire, whose appointment to interview with Ethel Kennedy for a position minding the newest little Kennedy is abruptly cancelled because of the funeral.  And finally, we meet Jamie West, recently returned (minus one leg) Vietnam vet, whose life, like all the others in this saga, will never be the same, and who is just beginning to reconcile his past dreams with his future opportunities.

Each of these characters has flaws, each has dreams, each puts his or her life on hold for this one day, to watch the train go by.  Their stories are connected only by the train tracks, and the national day of mourning.  Otherwise, they are simply and crisply presented as six short stories, all of which have elements of hope woven into them. 

I usually enjoy this format in fiction, but..... while the writing was superbly readable and descriptive, and the characters well drawn, I found it difficult to find a thread that really pulled them together as tightly as I've come to expect.  There were continual mentions of RFK and his influence, sprinklings of expectations from segments of the population about the premature ending of not only his candidacy but also his life, but I just could not feel them congealing into a whole work.  It's a well-written, well-edited piece of fiction.  I just wish the six stories hung together in a more specific and coherent whole.


  1. Sorry this one wasn't quite what you expected. It does sound like it would be hard to connect the dots, so to speak.

  2. That was bother me too. Most of these type of books end with showing how the characters are connected.

  3. an interesting idea...and not to be anti-RKF, I am not sure he might be the right figure to draw this whole idea together. Now JFK, yes I could see that..

  4. I just listened to his radio interview with Elaine Charles on The Book Report, and I can't say that I'm blown away at all by the concept. Unless you were there, I don't think it will touch many sides. Was a good interview thogh. She caught him out not knowing who was on the train when it actually left.

  5. Another great review Tina, Im also from Maine and have been reading your blog for the past year. Ive never written you or commented here, but I noticed someone mention my favorite radio show, The Book Report! My friend in Boston told me about the show. The show is not syndicated in Maine yet, unfortunately, but you can catch it online on their website at


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