The Train of Small Mercies by David Rowell tells the story of what happened on June 8th, 1968 as Senator Robert Kennedy’s funeral train made its procession from New York to Washington, D.C., not from the perspective of the Kennedy family but from that of six ordinary people along the train’s route. Each person, while in no way connected, has a shared purpose of not only moving the train along its path but of highlighting the good and bad of America at this volatile time.
Lionel Chase begins his first day as a train porter in New York aboard the funeral train for Robert Kennedy, trying desperately to get through this day as his own problems coalesce with those of the nation. Jamie West, having recently returned home to Maryland from Vietnam after losing a leg, is struggling, along with his family, to adjust to the changes his experiences and injury brings. Edwin Rupp wants nothing more than to celebrate his new pool, what he hopes will bring a return to his more carefree days with his wife, but feels the senator’s train will cast a shadow as it moves through Delaware. Young Michael Colvert in New Jersey is trying to get back to normal and watch the train go by with his friends as he, and his mother, try to recover from the trauma of Michael’s dad kidnapping him after their divorce. In Pennsylvania Deloris King, feeling continually more dissatisfied with her life, decides to go against her husband’s wishes and take her young daughter to see the train go by, not knowing that her web of lies will have devastating consequences to her daughter. And Maeve McDerdon, in Washington, D.C. to interview for a nanny position for Robert Kennedy’s soon to be born child, finds this new prospect dashed and begins wondering if she should begin to explore her love of storytelling that she had long suppressed after her beloved father’s death.
What I liked most about The Train of Small Mercies was the way the author used these seemingly ordinary people to show not only how devastated the nation was about Senator Kennedy’s death but how turbulent the country was at that time. It deals with the aftermath and protests against the Vietnam War, issues with freedom and equality for all people, regardless of race, gender or class and the continued rollercoaster of trying to find solid ground in an ever changing environment. Some people seemed to long for the simpler times while others had a renewed sense that maybe it was possible to start over and make a better life for themselves. The funeral train seemed to bring all walks of life together in one collective day of mourning, even if for only a short time.
Barely touching the surface of these characters’ lives, I wish the author had written more about each character and given a more finished aspect to each storyline. Some of the stories felt barely explored and none ended with any sense of closure. This could be the author’s purpose, giving a quick glimpse into the American life and then letting the people move on unobserved, but I would have enjoyed finding out where these characters went when the train rolled past.
Colleen lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband, son, their dog Oliver and their fish Finn. When not working or taking care of her family she has her nose stuck in a book (and, let’s face it, often when she is working or taking care of her family as well). Nothing excites her more than discovering a new author to obsess over or a hidden jewel of a book to worship.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Putnam Adult. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.