Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"The Train of Small Mercies," by David Rowell

"The Train of Small Mercies"
doesn't take one any place in particular, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Author David Rowell has applied a subtle hand in portraits of people living places through which the train carrying the slain Senator Robert Kennedy passed.

His chosen cross section for illumination include a white housewife, a black Pullman porter, some middle-class suburbanites with a pool, and a young man who lost a leg in Vietnam.

This is time (1968), place (eastern seaboard) and class (working) literature nicely confected. To have lived through some of what Rowell renders is to be transported anew, something we ask of good literature. One can hope a like feeling affects those born in later years.

You do not have to be a fan of Bobby Kennedy, or even know who he was, to appreciate this novel, which is more about the backdrop than the foreground. Rowell, a journalist, keeps his distance, avoids the trap of Kennedy hagiography, and places the senator in the lives of his characters, uses him more as a giant, temporal bookmark.

You will not know by the end why so many people viewed Kennedy's campaign as a high-water mark in American political life, but you will know they existed and what some of them were like.

Still, there is a positive glow to the senator's swan song, not in some passionate elegy from the writer, but in his descriptions of the faces in the pictures of thousands who lined the train route that sad June day.

Kennedy was killed and the train tracks became a place of gathering and space for shared grief, and the point of focus to a curious, low-voltage novel.

There are clean easy prose and a sense of incompletion to "The Train of Small Mercies," not technically the author's fault. He delivers on the title's promise: A story about a train.

We do not follow the people we've come to know in Delaware, New York, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania once the casket is pulled from the last rolling car in Union Station.

Instead, we get off the train of the story with them and are left to guess not only what will happen to them, but ponder how Kennedy's assassination will alter the course of their lives.

If it has not already done so by story's end.


  1. Thanks for the review, it was nice. I actually ordered the book last week and just started reading a couple of reviews in anticipation. One of my favorite radio shows featured an interview with David Rowell last week. If youre interested you can find it in the archives at

  2. Thanks William D. for dropping by and reading.

    the highway scribe