“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.
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