Saturday, April 18, 2009

When the Whistle Blows - Book Review and Giveaway

National Library Week Tip #4: Don't forget about debut authors when searching for books to read.

“Change comes, Jimmy. It’ll thunder down the tracks towards you like an engine with the brakes gone out. And sometimes, there ain’t a dagburn thing you can do to stop it. … A man’s gotta learn how to read the times or else be crushed by them.”When the Whistle Blows by Fran Cannon Slayton

My grandfather has told me stories of how he put pennies on the train track and waited for the passing train to squash them. Steam trains were a common sight when he was a youngster, their tracks crossing all over the country. Today kids are lucky if they get to see one up close in a museum. Fran Cannon Slayton takes young readers back to the time of steam engines and small railroad towns in her debut novel, When the Whistle Blows. Setting her tale in the 1940’s Rowlesburg, West Virginia, she tells the coming-of-age story of a boy named Jimmy Cannon and his experiences growing up in a railroading family.

Jimmy is all boy, full of mischief, pranks and curiosity. Throughout his young adult life, Jimmy tries to figure out and understand his father, the foreman of B&O railroad, the man with varying snorts depending upon his mood. Jimmy desperately wants to have a part in the railroader life, just like his father, brothers, and uncles. Railroading is in his blood after all. His father urges him to look beyond the railroad – the steam engines are on their way out with the less-maintenance diesels taking over. Jimmy also searches for the meaning behind the secret society that his father belongs to and learns the value of having friends you can lean on during hard times.

Slayton tells Jimmy’s story using an unusual style consisting of a series of vignettes, each chapter taking place in consecutive years (from 1943 to 1949) on the same day-of-the-year, All Hallows’ Eve. In these story snapshots, the reader observes Jimmy as he struggles through and learns from various life-altering events all the while progressing from boyhood to manhood. The use of dialect with terms like ‘em, lemme and gonna lend realism to Jimmy’s voice. Seamlessly included are all those topics so interesting to boys like engines, cars, hunting, and football.

Slayton brings a whole lot to the table in this book, and though she recounts some humorous stories, many topics are fairly heavy: death, complex father-son relationships, coming-of-age struggles, railroad history, issues faced by those living in small towns, and the paralyzing effects of mass layoffs to a small community. Amazingly, somehow she manages to write about these subjects with touching innocence and realism all marvelously depicted through the eyes of a young man. I will caution that a few of these events warrant further discussion, especially with those readers of an impressionable young age. Because of the structure of the book, we do not see Jimmy’s character held accountable for his questionable actions. While Slayton implies that Jimmy’s father is rather strict, Jimmy sneaks about during the night, throws frozen cabbages at cars (such pranks could cause severe injuries) and seemingly gets away with it. In some of the scenes adults drink beer and smoke, though not to excess and football fans bring pint flasks to football games. However, in my opinion, the way Slayton brings out these genuine character qualities and all their imperfections makes this book such a true-to-life, outstanding read.

Given my mechanical engineering background, I found the references to steam locomotives and the impact of dieselization most interesting. The loss of jobs aspect in the book is very relevant today given the struggling economy and mass layoffs that have impacted so many. Train buffs will find a lot to love about this book. Slayton knows her stuff; she grew up in a railroading family and the pride she feels blasts through the pages of her book with strength and clarity like the whistle on a steam train. Slayton hopes that her book will help revitalize Rowlesburg, a very noble dream. In fact, due to her remarkable story, I now have a newfound desire to ride a steam train someday, just for the experience.
When the Whistle Blows by Fran Cannon Slayton. Philomel Books (June 2009); 160 pages; ISBN 9780399251894 Age 10+

Related links and activities:
Fran Cannon Slayton – Author Website
YouTube Video featuring Fran Cannon Slayton
Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum
Mid-Continent Kids: What Makes A Steam Engine Work?
Family Fun Build Your Own Train Printable – Steam Engine [pdf]
Family Fun Build Your Own Train Printable – Cargo & Freight Cars [pdf]
Family Fun Build Your Own Train Printable – Passenger Car [pdf]
Family Fun Build Your Own Train Printable – Train Road Signs [pdf]

Win a copy! Fran Cannon Slayton has kindly offered to giveaway (2) advance copies of When the Whistle Blows to Brimful Curiosities readers.

To enter, check out and let me know why you think you'd like to own her book.

• For contact purposes, if you are a non-blogger or your email is not accessible in your blog profile, please leave a valid email address within the comment section.
• Contest is open to US only
• Contest ends on Monday, May 4th, 2009 at 11:59 PM CST.
• Winner will be chosen at random
Three ways to gain extra entries (Maximum total entries is 4):
1st extra entry: Follow Me! or subscribe by email or RSS reader
2nd extra entry: Blog about this contest then post your link in the comment section.
3rd extra entry: Follow me on twitter (iambrimful) and tweet about the contest.


mindy said...

i would like to own this because her writing transfixes you to the time the story takes place thanks for the giveaway

annies home said...

I must say that with the setting being in the past and on trains how could I not love it?

annies home said...


annies home said...

blogged about the giveaway

Staci A said...

The book really does sound captivating. When I was younger, I was fascinated by the train that ran near our house. We used to go put pennies on the track all the time. I'd love the chance to read this!

Alice H said...

I'd love to read this book because I love all of her favorites (in the about me section) - especially the movie selection. You don't meet many people who like Time Bandits! Thanks for the chance - alicedemske at

clenna said...

I'd love to win this book. My grandfather worked on the railroad in the30's. I am also interested in the 40's. I wouldn't want to live during that time but I like reading and hearing stories aobut that time period.

Sandra K321 said...

I would like to own this book because it sounds like I could learn something about the era when the steam locomotives were still popular. The characters sound interesting also.

KR said...

I grew up a block away from the railroad track. I can't tell you how many pennies we left~~

Bingo said...

Please enter me....I know about this book but haven't read it. Would love to win. I am a follower! Thank you!

Karen said...

Great review!

Our family enjoyed visiting the Mid Continent Railway museum last summer (even though it was not open because they were dealing with the aftermath of a flood). We hope to go back again, and I thought I'd mention it.

Katterley said...

I grew up getting to ride the steam train in North Freedom, Wisconsin, and now live near the National Railway Museum so my kids get to ride every summer! Took the library's summer reading program there one year. THAT was an adventure!

I may be a Yank, but I've got relatives in the South, y'all, and I love to read a good Southern dialect--and I'm gonna love to read it to all the young 'uns out loud, too--jus' lemme at 'em!

This sounds like a great book!

Katterley said...

Here's my blog post about the contest!

Anita Yancey said...

I would like to own this book, because the story is set in West Virginia. Since I grew up there, I find this book very interesting and would love to read it. Please enter me. Thanks for having this great giveaway.


rubynreba said...

My husband has told stories about when he lived near the railroad when he was a child. He likes anything about railroads and would love this. Thanks.

rlgrady said...

I would love to read this book. Apparently it is destined to be a classic!


AllyKatt said...

A wonderful book! Thanks for the chance to win it. Seems like the topic of trains is most intriguing to me as I have always felt a kinship with them.

espressogurl at hotmail dot com

Selinda said...

I would love to read this! I like that it focuses on one day in the life for each chapter!


selinda_mccumbers at

jemscout425 said...

this sound alot like my grandpa, who rode the rails in the 20's and 30's. interesting stories

Debs Desk said...

I would love to read this book because I love trains. Please include me in your giveaway.

Sue W. said...

I would like to own this book to find out what all the adventures are that Jimmy has and also find out if he eventually does work on a train.


Sue W. said...

I tweeted this giveaway. My tweet name is kona15hilo


Sue W. said...

I blogged this giveaway at:


Belinda said...

I would like this because it takes place in a time long past.
1bmore @ gmail . com

lilbabypug said...

i would love to add this to my summer reading list. I haven't read this author before, but I am always looking for great new finds.

Renee G said...

I love reading debut authors --- and it looks like she will be an author that should be followed.


Valerie said...

it sounds fascinating, and I need a good summer book
KawaiiNeko2008 at aol dot com

D Q said...

We still have a very old train in our city and my son would put pennies on the tracks. Sounds like a great read.

Luvdaylilies said...

This sound like a book I'd enjoy and could share with my teenager!
Thanks for offering the giveaway=)

Luvdaylilies at bellsouth dot net

Ellie Wright said...

I love to read anything set in the WWII era. I grew up hearing stories of my mother's life during that period of history. This sounds like a book I must read. Thanks for the giveaway.

bloggytreasures said...

I love stories of childhood and coming of age. This sounds fabulous and like a classic!

bloggytreasures said...

I follow on twitter and tweeted:

auntrene said...

I would enjoy reading this book because it is first of all about Trains, I have always been fascinated by Trains, especially passenger trains.
When I was a child we took a train trip.. such fun.
I also love anything form the 30's and 40's.. I have been told I have an Old Soul.. just because I am not totally modern. Hey I am blogging what more could people want from me.
Thanks for the chance to win this book, I would love to read.

bison61 said...

I'd love to read this book-my grandfather and Dad both worked for the railroad

tiramisu392 (at)