November 2011

A funeral train for a fragile America

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After Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, his coffin was placed on a train and transported from New York, where his funeral was held, to Washington, D.C., where he was to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Thousands of ordinary people stood for hours in the unseasonable heat just to get a glimpse of the train passing. David Rowell’s insightful, gently humorous and compassionate debut tells the stories of a handful of these people. For those who were alive and remember the traumatic spring of 1968—Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated only weeks before Bobby Kennedy—the book might bring back memories both disturbing and strangely innocent. Along with the Vietnam War, riots and assassinations, there were only a few channels on TV, Walter Cronkite told everyone the news and everyone believed him, and the Beatles had not yet begun their slow and terrible four-way divorce. For those who weren’t around, The Train of Small Mercies is a snapshot of a time when all certainties about race, gender, parenthood and America’s place in the world were undergoing upheaval.

The stories of Rowell’s characters are largely ones of disappointment and dislocation. They include the family of a veteran who has lost a leg in Vietnam; when he returns, they struggle to reintegrate him into their lives. A Kennedy-worshiping mother is obsessed with her daughter to the exclusion of her husband and sons, and tragedy ensues. A young Pullman porter is following in his father’s footsteps. His first job? He’s serving on the funeral train, and while he’s excited, proud and a little scared, his mind is largely on what’s going to happen between him and his pregnant girlfriend. Later, he gets into a brawl that threatens his job. An Irish immigrant learns the job she was about to start has fallen through; she was supposed to be the nanny to one of the late senator’s many children. A little boy tries to come to terms with the fact that the nice time he’d spent with his father in a cabin in the woods wasn’t what it seemed.

The funeral train takes all of these people momentarily out of their lives and gives them something else on which to focus their grief. These are the small mercies of the title, and at such a fraught time in American history, small mercies are everything.

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