Snow Train


Possessed of that rarity, an authentic child's voice, Joseph Cummins' debut novel The Snow Train is a masterly work reminiscent of such twentieth-century classics as Dorothy Allison's Bastard out of Carolina and Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. By probing the darkest corners of childhood with an eerie, sometimes surreal clarity, Cummins allows us to inhabit those places that adults can rarely reach. The Snow Train is an achievement that will become etched in readers' minds ...
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Possessed of that rarity, an authentic child's voice, Joseph Cummins' debut novel The Snow Train is a masterly work reminiscent of such twentieth-century classics as Dorothy Allison's Bastard out of Carolina and Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. By probing the darkest corners of childhood with an eerie, sometimes surreal clarity, Cummins allows us to inhabit those places that adults can rarely reach. The Snow Train is an achievement that will become etched in readers' minds forever.
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Editorial Reviews

Melvin Jules Bukiet
Frank O'Connor once described all serious fiction as revealing an 'intense awareness of human loneliness.' Joseph Cummins does precisely that in The Snow Train, a chronicle of one small boy's horribly disfiguring and mysteriously transfiguring disease. Told through Robbie O'Conor's perspective, it catches the tone of a child who cannot comprehend the forces that shape his life, yet manages to convey the brute reality of those forces with consummate maturity. It's intimate, imaginative and, by the startling conclusion, blissful.
Library Journal
It is common enough to find a book written in the first person. But to have the story begin when the narrator is barely verbal, not yet walking, and struggling with potty training is rare indeed. That's what Cummins has given us in his first novel. Robbie O'Conor's father, mother, and big sister aren't quite the fairy-tale family of the 1950s. From the age of eight months, Robbie is covered with a "rash" that makes him the butt of the neighborhood children's jokes and scorn. His big sister, Rosemary, bounces between defending him from others and tormenting him herself. Dad's off selling cars and is seldom seen; Mommy is holed up in her room writing poems for the Detroit Catholic. And even this is idyllic compared with life after Rosie is struck by a car and killed before she enters first grade. The book is divided into two time frames: 1952, when Rosie is Robbie's main focus, and 1957, when everything seems to revolve around the rash. Robbie enters the hospital for an experimental treatment and finds that children carry the same cruelty with them everywhere. Yet in this setting, bonds are formed unlike those found in the world at large. Throughout, Cummins inhabits the mind of a child and gives him voice as few writers could. Recommended for public libraries. Debbie Bogenschutz, Cincinnati State Technical & Community Coll. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
First-novelist Cummins audaciously enters the mind of a very young boy afflicted by tragedy and chronic disease, attempting to give meaning to the melange of real and imagined impressions he finds there. Aside from his green-eyed mama, who writes poetry when she's not spreading the cream that cools his burning rash, baby Robbie's first crib-centric observations in the 1950s have to do with his older sister Rosemary, whose black eyes and pigtails are practically all he needs to see and whose imagination is more than enough for both of them. Later, his world expands to include the windows and lawn of his suburban Detroit home, changing seasons, and other children, but one hot day disaster strikes: Rosie is run over while racing to the Good Humor truck. A few years later, Robbie inhabits a quieter, but no less mysterious world. Although his rash has grown into a series of interlocking scabs that encase his body and bleed whenever he scratches them (which is often), he still leads the semblance of a normal life. He goes to parochial school along with much of the rest of the neighborhood, puzzles over his aunt's relationship with his dad's top car salesman, and imagines that Rosie's invisible friend Abdo is still in the house. (When a girl challenges his memory of Rosie, he hits her.) But Robbie's illness also puts him into the very different world of the city hospital children's ward for cases like his. There, he meets a speechless boy with boiled skin and a girl with a rainbow face. There, he awaits the transformation that will set him free. Remaining true to his protagonist's perceptions, Cummins lets the story's essential mysteries remain as impenetrable as they would for a child. Anintriguing worldview, meticulously assembled with an artist's inspired touch.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781888451238
  • Publisher: Akashic Books
  • Publication date: 8/22/2001
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 250
  • Product dimensions: 5.06 (w) x 8.46 (h) x 0.77 (d)

Read an Excerpt

In the car on the way to the doctor's office, the snow was deep onthe streets and piled up high around the curbs. The sun was bright, but it was so cold nothing was melting. The wheels of the car hissed as we got on the expressway that went downtown to the doctor's office. The snow had been shoveled off it and Mommy drove fast. She moved her legs up and down and looked into the mirror. She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel. Her eyes darted. We got off the expressway and went up another road and there were big buildings on either side of us and people crowding the sidewalks and spilling over into the streets. We stopped at a red light. A woman stood at the corner waving. I waved back at her. She ignored me. I waved again.

"I think she's looking for a cab, sweetie," Mommy said.

"Then she shouldn't be waving," I said.

We finally parked the car in a big lot and got out into the cold air. It was so fresh and sharp I could feel my scabs give a little tug. It was like they tightened up. Mommy took my hand and we walked together through all the rows of cars.

"My rash hurts," I said.

"We'll be there soon."

"It bites." It felt like a little animal was nipping and tugging at spots on me.

We came to a tall building and pushed into a revolving door that jerked around and spun us out into a big room that clattered with noise from all the people walking back and forth across its shiny floor. Men and women in thick coats stood in clumps and talked to each other and smoked cigarettes. The ceiling was way up high and there was blue smoke floating everywhere in the sunshine that came down from somewhere I couldn't see.

We went over and stood in front of a row of elevators. I liked the thing that had the floor numbers on it. It looked like half a clock. A big metal arrow told where the elevator was. It would catch on a number and then click down, catch and click down. I kept watching it.

Mommy was watching it, too. She smiled at me. "This is quite suspenseful, isn't it?"

The elevator opened and we crowded in. We had to push. I shoved ahead until Mommy grabbed me. "Wait. Stop it!"

She put her hands on my shoulders and turned me around and put me in front of her.

“I'm sorry,” I heard her say to someone.

People pushed in after us and I was crowded back into Mommy. The elevator jerked up and my stomach sank. We went up and up and up. My ears got a tight feeling. It felt like all the air was coming into them through a pinhole. Then the elevator opened and we pushed our way out into a long corridor. It was very quiet, like the hallways at school between classes. There were doors up and down it that had white frosted glass tops with black letters on them. Across from the doors were windows that looked out onto a square empty place that wasn't outside and wasn't inside. It was just a place of air, where the building opened up. The air had strange grey light to it.

I ran over to the window and looked down before Mommy could stop me. As far as I could see there was nothing but the grey air and row after row of windows. I looked up, and I could see more windows. Way up, the air seemed to get lighter. The last time I was here, I had seen a pigeon circling and swooping. I looked for it now, but I didn't see it. I wondered if it had ever gotten out. I thought of it floating by itself in the grey air.

We walked down to the very end of the hallway and Mommy pushed a door open into a room that was twice as big our living room, with couches and chairs and big plants in the corners, and coffee tables full of bright magazines. There were kids all over, sitting with their mommies or playing on the floor, coloring or pushing toys. They were yelling and laughing and crying.

Two little boys ran past me to the drinking fountain. One of them nearly knocked me over and when he looked back at me I could see that he had a big purple place on his cheek that spread up to his eye and around to his ear. Mommy and I went over and sat down on a couch near a tall green plant that had big flat leaves. There was a boy sitting next to us with crumbs stuck all over his cheeks. He picked at them. He was sucking his thumb and crying. His mommy put her head down and talked to him. She tried to take his thumb out of his mouth. The boy jerked it back. He had a crew cut and he was wearing a green flannel shirt and black pants and white socks.

He stared at me meanly. He looked like Goodies brother would if he had crumbs on his face.

"He's staring!"


I watched the crumb boy out of the corner of my eye. When his mommy wasn't looking he pulled off some of his crumbs and hid them under his chair cushion.

Mommy started reading a magazine. I got up and put my hands in my pockets and walked around the room. A little baby girl wobbled by, with her arms out and her fat knees shaky. Her mommy was following her. Her round cheeks shook and her eyes bulged. She smiled a silly smile. She had red corkscrew curls that stuck straight out. Her butt looked fat with her diapers. My throat choked and I felt a funny tingling in my stomach. I wanted to hit her.

The little baby girl walked up to me with her arms held up high. Her face smiled wide. My mouth tasted like I had put a penny in it. She stumbled and her mommy reached down and swooped her up into her arms and carried her away. The baby girl didn't look back at me. She was cooing and playing with her mommy's hair.

I went back to the couch. Mommy was still reading. I sat down and kept thinking about the baby girl. I thought she was like some little animal that you could kill. I started to laugh. She was such a baby.

I heard the crumb boy snicker. I looked up to see a boy who was maybe two years younger than me standing in front of me. He had thin blond hair that was so light and yellow and fluffy he almost looked like a baby chick. He was wearing brown corduroy pants and a white long-sleeved shirt.

He held out a tractor to me.

The boy's face was a bright red. So were his hands. His skin all over was as red as a tomato. It was very smooth. There were no scabs or scratches or scales on it. It was just bright red, like he was sunburned.

His eyes were light blue. He stood there, holding out the tractor.

“Mommy,” I said.

Mommy looked up and I felt her jump a little.

“Who's this?” she said. Then she smiled.

I didn't say anything. The red boy kept staring at me.

“Robbie, he's giving you something.”

"I don't like him.”


I took the tractor and held it. The red boy smiled. A tall brown-skinned woman in a checkered dress came up next to him and took his hand.

“Frederick,” she said quietly. She spoke to Mommy. “Sorry. He don't really talk.”

“Don't worry about it,” said Mommy. “He wasn't bothering us.”

I handed the tractor back to the red boy and he held it and looked at it as if he hadn't seen it before. I noticed that even the top of his scalp, under his hair, was red. As he walked away, holding onto the woman's hand, he looked back at me over his shoulder. He made me feel funny.

When they were gone, the crumb boy's mommy leaned over and whispered to Mommy, “They're from the Home.”

"The Home?”

“Northville,” the woman said. She sat back and nodded her head. Mommy stared after the little boy. “He looks like an angel. A little boiled angel.”

“He'll be a ward of the state all his life,” the crumb boy's mommy said.

The red boy had gone back to sit with some other boys and girls his age. They were all wearing brown corduroy pants and white shirts, even the girls. They were quieter than the other children. The brown-skinned woman and a brown-skinned man were looking after them.

I watched Mommy watch them.

“What's Northville?” I asked.

Mommy shifted in her seat. She sighed.

“It's where children who are retarded go,” she said. “They have something the matter with them when they're born. So they stay there.”

“Don't they stay with their mommy and daddy?”

“Some of them don't have mommies or daddies, sweetie. And some of them need special help their mommies and daddies can't give them.”

I snuck a look across the room at the red boy, who had his head down and was looking at his tractor. The little baby girl who could hardly walk waddled past him like a duck and picked a leaf off a plant and stuffed it into her mouth. Her mommy came running up and grabbed the leaf out of her mouth. The red boy didn't even look up.

I started laughing. Two stupid people! A woman standing across the room looked up and smiled at me. I saw that it was Nurse Nelda. She put a folder under her arm and walked over to us. I started to tingle inside. She knelt down in front of me.

“It looks like someone's in a good mood,” she said.

She wore a white uniform that was crisp and clean and she smelled so fresh, like fresh sheets or pillowcases. Her hair was wavy and black, and her cheeks were pink. Her eyes glittered when they looked at me. I felt like curling up inside of myself. My skin leapt alive and began to crawl on me. I couldn't stop looking at her.

“I have a feeling he's quite glad to see you,” Mommy said.

“That's just the way I like ‘em," Nurse Nelda said. She held out her hand and I took it and stood up. We walked by the crumb boy, who squinted at us. It looked like his face had been mashed into a toaster. I was glad he could see me with Nurse Nelda.

We went through a door and down a short corridor that had little rooms going off of it. Inside them were boys or girls waiting on metal tables, wearing white paper robes. Their mommies were with them. Nurses came in and out the of rooms, carrying trays. Some of the doors were shut. From behind one of them, I could hear a boy crying. Someone was talking to him in a low voice.

We finally went into a room at the end of the corridor. It smelled like medicine. There was a metal table at the center of the room that had a white piece of paper over it. There were white open cupboards where all kinds of bottles and shiny metal objects lay on white towels. There was a white sink with a silver mirror above it.

The sun shined in through the window. I ran over and looked out. The view made me breathe faster. I could see the blue sky and the buildings across the blue sky from us and, far away, the dark river. I could see the bridge that went across to Canada. Canada looked very flat, with buildings that weren't as tall as ours, and a big wide plain that stretched out as far as I could see.

I loved being up high and on top of everything. It made me excited. I loved seeing Canada. I pressed my face hard against the window until I could almost see straight down to the little cars and people going by far below us.

“Open the window,” I said.

Nurse Nelda and Mommy were standing talking. Nurse Nelda was showing Mommy her hand, where she had a big shiny ring.

“It's gorgeous,” Mommy said.

“Open the window,” I said to them.

“Nurse Nelda is getting married,” Mommy said to me. “To a doctor like Dr. Benson.”

"That's too bad.”

They both laughed and I laughed, too. Nurse Nelda came up to me and put her hand on my head.

“Don't you want to congratulate me?”

"Congrats!” I held out my hand like Daddy's friend Sam Sullivan would. Nurse Nelda took it and I shook her hand really hard. I stuck out my chest.

“Open the window.”

Nurse Nelda and Mommy laughed.

“Open it!”

"No one's opening any windows,” Nurse Nelda said. She sat me up on the metal table and started pulling up my sweater. “Off,” she said.

I started to laugh. I felt excited. The sweater went over my head.

“Open it!” I cried into the dark. My sweater came off and then Mommy helped Nurse Nelda take off the rest of my clothes. I felt like I was being tugged and pulled and jerked. My shirt came off and then my pants. I started to laugh when my undershirt caught on my head. Nurse Nelda laughed, too. She tugged and tugged. It got caught on my chin. It turned into a balloon.

Finally, it popped off. My feet bounced up when my shoes and socks came off and my hands went up over my head to get my shirt off. I was like a little puppet. I began waving my arms around.

“Shhhh,” Mommy said to me.

I just had my underpants on. I watched Nurse Nelda. I could smell the nice way she smelled. I saw her dark eyes looking at me. She walked behind me. I felt her fingers touching my back lightly. She pressed and poked a little, and I heard her sigh. My skin felt so good when she touched it. She was so clean.

She went into a drawer and got out one of the white robes and put it over my head. My rash shrank when the crinkly material touched it. The door opened and Dr. Benson came in. He was short and thick and he had white hair in a crewcut. He walked very fast towards us with his left hand over his chest pocket, which was full of pens and pencils. He always walked like that, as if he was afraid they were going to fall out all over the floor.

“Hello, Doctor,” said Mommy.

“Hi,” I said.

Dr. Benson came right up close to me and held out his hand in a very serious way. I shook hands with him.

“Hello, Clark Kent,” he said, which was what he always called me. He was smiling a big smile. His teeth were very large. His skin was pink. He reached up and switched on a light that hung down from the ceiling above the table. It was very bright. He took my chin in his hand and bent down to look at my face. Mommy walked up close to us. She had her arms folded around her chest. She looked at me along with Dr. Benson.

“Jeannie, we’re trying as fast as we can about that bed.”

“It's just awful,” Mommy said. “He's up half the night scratching himself. He's stiff and sore all over. I can't let him out to play with the other boys. They tease him. I won't have him subjected to ridicule.”

Dr. Benson didn't say anything, but he cleared his throat. He made me lie down and pulled up the gown to my waist. He picked up my legs, one at a time, and bent and moved them slowly back and forth. Then he got down very close and looked at my rash. The bright light made me squint. I turned my eyes away. I felt his smooth hands touching my feet.

“He's so brave,” Mommy said. “Aren't you?”

Dr. Benson sat me up again. He pulled the top of the gown down. and looked at my shoulders. His head was close to mine. I felt his soft, warm breath on me. His hair brushed my ear. It felt dry and stiff, like the fur of a little dog. He picked up my arm and stroked his thumb along it. My rash shuddered. It was scaly by my elbows, and hard, like a dinosaur's skin.

Dr. Benson seemed to be thinking. He held my arm and squinted at it. The air in the room began to feel cold. The sharp bitter medicine smell made the rash hurt. I began to shiver, and Dr. Benson put my arm down and went over to the sink and began washing his hands with brown powder soap that frothed up over his big, thick thumbs and palms. He washed very carefully. I could hear him scouring his hands. It sounded like he was grinding them together.

He turned around with his hands wet and Nurse Nelda handed him a towel and then came over with my clothes and helped take off the paper gown. She put on my pants and shirt while Mommy and Dr. Benson talked in low voices.

Nurse Nelda had a quiet look on her face. She smiled at me but she didn't say anything, and her eyes weren't as bright as before. She tied my shoes as I sat on the table, and then leaned down and kissed me on the forehead.

“Bye-bye, sweetie.”

“Okay,” I said.

She left the room and Dr. Benson and Mommy came over and stood by the table I was sitting on. Mommy put her hand on my shoulder as Dr. Benson started talking.

“Rob, this thing has been a monkey on your back for a long time, hasn't it?” he said. “You can't really play outside. You can't enjoy yourself. You can't even sleep at night. It's good we’re doing something about it.”

“It's just gotten to that point,” said Mommy.

“I won't kid you, Rob,” Dr. Benson said. “You've always been straight with me and I'll be straight with you. Your skin is an especially tough problem. We don't know why, really. We’re guessing you don't have the things that keep these rashes away. What we call immunities. Remember I told you about them? They're what make Superman tick. They give him his power. Without his immunities, the kryptonite gets Superman. He's gotta have ‘em.

“Right now, Rob, if you were Superman you'd be feeling pretty low. You'd be in a fairly weak state. That's why I'm recommending this blood-changing procedure, which is a very new thing. You'll be the first in this area to benefit from it. By taking the old blood out and putting the new blood in, we'll be able to add fresh, strong immunities to your system. You'll be leaping tall buildings at a single bound in no time.”

He smiled his white smile at Mommy.

“Where does the blood come from?” I said.

“There's a pool,” Dr. Benson said. “People donate theirs.”

"Will it hurt when it goes in?” I said.

Dr. Benson snorted through his nose. He swiped his hand in the air like he was trying to grab a mosquito. “Hurt? Nonsense. You'll just feel--" He stopped and looked at Mommy. “Help me out here, Jeannie, you're the language expert.”

Mommy seemed confused.

"Well, I don't know,” she said. “I suppose it's basically like a transfusion, isn't it? You might just feel sort of a flowing.”

“A flowing!” Dr. Benson said. “Perfect.” He smiled with his white teeth. He patted his pens and pencils.

“Does it whoosh through?” I said.

“A whoosh?” Dr. Benson asked.

“It may not even be--" said Mommy.

“It'll be very quiet,” Dr. Benson said. “We might even give you something to make you a little sleepy.”

“I'm not afraid.”

“Well, that's good,” said Dr. Benson. He looked at his watch. “Since when is Superman afraid? And you'll be the envy of the other kids there. When they see how well this thing works, they'll all want it.”

“What kids?” I said.

“On the ward. In the hospital. You'll have a lot of fun. There'll be kids in your situation to play with.”

I thought of all the torn-up looking kids in the waiting room. I thought of the crumb boy and the red boy. I wondered if they would be there. My stomach began to hurt. Mommy helped me down off the table and went to get my coat. I walked over to the window and looked out again. Across from us there was another building with people walking around in it. I could see into a room with a lot of desks. There were men sitting at them with their shirtsleeves rolled up. They were wearing hats and typing. One of them looked just like Daddy. I waved at him, but he didn't see me.

I thought of people living in a room in the middle of the sky. I thought about walking across the sky to them.

Mommy and I said goodbye to Dr. Benson at the door.

“No later than the middle of next week, Jeannie,” he said. “I promise.”

When we walked through the waiting room, the crumb boy wasn't there anymore, but I saw the red boy sitting with the other children from the Home. He looked up at me, and then immediately looked down. Then he looked back up again.

“Wave at him, sweetie,” Mommy whispered. “He likes you.”

I gave him a wave, because she made me. He didn't wave back, but he stared at me with his blue eyes wide.

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Interviews & Essays

Exclusive Author Essay
I work in New York City. The week that my first novel, The Snow Train, began reaching bookstores, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center took place. Like many others in the city that day, I was evacuated from my midtown office building into a September mid-morning of crystalline light and unusual clarity. It was oddly surreal, as far north as I was. Some people hugged each other and cried, while others went about their business as if nothing had happened.

All of a sudden, my life was infiltrated by absence. The brother-in-law of the woman across the hall: absent. The youngest brother of my former boss: absent. Some who once stood with me on the train platform in my New Jersey town: absent.

The faces of the absent continue to stare at us from walls of the city.

The Snow Train, a novel of childhood, began in absence. Growing up in the 1950s, I was stricken with a virulent eczema. I could not move without my body tearing. To escape this, I absented myself. It's an old story for a child to live in his imagination, but I was joined there by another absentee, Regina Cummins, my aunt.

Regina had been hit by a car some 25 years before, at the age of 12, while crossing a street holding the hand of her young brother, Peter. In 1927 Detroit there was no 911 to dial. Passersby took both children to separate hospitals. A quarter of a century later, Regina, my imaginary playmate, breathlessly described to me what happened:

"They searched the hospitals high and low. They found Pete -- he had a fractured skull and a broken leg, but he would live! Finally, they discovered me at Our Lady of Sorrows. I was lying on a stretcher in the hallway all alone and I was dead!"

When Regina said "all alone" her voice became a wail. But she also laughed when she told me: "The man who hit me was a drunken undertaker. Ha! But some say his girlfriend was driving...."

Regina told me other things: how her mother had suffered: "The poor woman was never the same after that, they say!" And how her father had wept, putting on his tie in front of the mirror on the day of the funeral. "He never cried before or since!"

All the family voices, talking to craft Regina's presence in the long years of her absence, had caused me to create her. She was my first creation, in fact. She had long, dark hair, and she was startlingly smaller than I, even though I was much younger than she was when she died. She talked with her head down, or averted. Most of our conversations took place sitting alone in our living room, or out in the far corners of the backyard where the wind rustled in the bushes.

And years later, in The Snow Train, she became Rosemary, my young protagonist's older sister.

On the day after the terrorist attack, I was at home staring out the window at the beautiful, almost luminescent, day. I felt as if I were standing on the shore of a pond whose serene surface hid the bodies of the drowned. I held my two-year-old daughter in my arms. Suddenly, she said to me: "Daddy, the plane crashed." She was giving me the news. All I could do was hold her. (Joseph Cummins)

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