The Train of Small Mercies By David Rowell
I have often said, “I love first novels.” The Train of Small Mercies by David Rowell, just released in paperback, is a first novel that merits attention from booksellers and readers.
An expression I grew up with was “Thank God for small mercies”, and after reading this novel I wondered what it really means – is it sarcastic, or are the “small mercies” truly something to be thankful for in a world that can sometimes be very cruel.
The Train of Small Mercies follows the lives of several characters, groups of families and friends over a single day.
It is a day in June 1968, the day Bobby Kennedy’s body travelled by train from New York City’s Penn Station to Union Station in Washington, for burial in Arlington.
Along the route the train follows we meet some of the American citizens who gather to pay their respects as the train passes by their homes and towns.
We meet Ellie and her husband, Joe, their son, Jamie, and their daughter, Miriam.
Jamie has recently returned from Vietnam, losing a leg in military action.
The small mercy for Ellie is that her son is home, alive and still part of her life – it could have been far worse.
She could have lost her son as Rose Kennedy has.
In New York City it is the first day of a summer job for Lionel Chase, a young, black university student.
His father has worked on the trains and has secured a job for his son on the train carrying the body of Robert F. Kennedy, his family, and legions of reporters.
Waiting for the train in Washington is Maeve who was to have an interview with the Kennedy family for the position of nanny for the baby that will be born to Ethel Kennedy that December.
We learn about Maeve’s relationship with her own family, especially her father, as she wonders what the future will hold, and if in fact she will become part of the Kennedy entourage.
Edwin and Lolly live in Delaware, where they have just purchased an above ground swimming pool for their backyard – Edwin’s dream and Lolly’s compromise.
They have invited their oldest friend and his new girlfriend for the afternoon – the first time the pool will be used – they plan to go on, later, to watch the funeral train pass by.
In Pennsylvania we meet Delores King, and her daughter, Rebecca. Their day will be one of challenges and changes, and we will be left wondering about the outcome.
And finally Michael Covert, a young boy, dealing with his parent’s separation and his feelings of loyalty to each parent. He struggles, examining his place in their lives, and wondering where he will find home.
Some of the brilliance of this simple novel it that David Rowell introduces us to his cast of characters in the first 30 pages, and we are already forming an attachment to these fictional people.
During this single day we learn about their fears and dreams, about some of their past lives, and we wonder about their future. I am old enough to vividly remember the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. And, the day only a few years later, when unbelievably, another Kennedy son was assassinated.
The Train of Small Mercies is a very good story, well written, it captures perfectly this time and place, and although we have only one day with these characters, we close the book feeling that we know intimately even in the short time we have shared.