Tuesday, July 28, 2009

When the Whistle Blows

Fran Cannon Slayton
Philomel, 2009. 159 pgs. Juvenile fiction.
The whole of this book is greater than the sum of its parts. Narrated by Jimmy Cannon, a young boy growing up in an Appalachian railroad town, the story takes place on successive Halloweens (his father's birthday) beginning in 1943 and ending with his father's death in 1949. Jimmy loves steam trains and wants to be a railroad man like his father and his older brothers, but his passion is thwarted by the advent of diesel engines and his father's steadily pushing him in a different direction. But most of the book is about what it was like to grow up in Rowlesburg, West Virginia in the 40s--from Jimmy and his friend hucking rotten cabbages on Halloween night at . . . the wrong car to their winning effort in a football game against the hated Kingwood Stags. Sorrow doesn't pass the small town by, either, when a boiler blows on the 7049 out of Tunnelton and fathers, sons, and brothers die. Though Jimmy passes through many maturing experiences, his voice and preoccupations don't seem to change much until the end of the story and Ms. Slayton gets a bit simile-happy here and there. Still, When the Whistle Blows is a gentle, life-affirming, father and son story that stays in the heart, as do the many characters young and old, large and small, who live on in this story of the West Virginia hill country.

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