The Train of Small Mercies

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In haunting and crystalline prose, The Train of Small Mercies follows six characters' intrepid search for hope among the debris of an American tragedy.

In New York, a young black porter struggles through his first day on the job-a staggering assignment aboard Robert F. Kennedy's funeral train. In Pennsylvania, a woman creates a tangle of lies to sneak away from her disapproving husband and pay her respects to the slain senator, dragging her child with her. In Maryland, a wounded...

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The Train of Small Mercies

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Overview

In haunting and crystalline prose, The Train of Small Mercies follows six characters' intrepid search for hope among the debris of an American tragedy.

In New York, a young black porter struggles through his first day on the job-a staggering assignment aboard Robert F. Kennedy's funeral train. In Pennsylvania, a woman creates a tangle of lies to sneak away from her disapproving husband and pay her respects to the slain senator, dragging her child with her. In Maryland, a wounded young soldier awaits a newspaper interview that his parents hope will restore his damaged self-esteem. And in Washington, an Irish nanny in town to interview with the Kennedy family must reconcile the lost opportunity and the chance to start her life anew.

In this stunning debut, David Rowell depicts disparate lives united by an extraordinary commemoration, irrevocably changed as Kennedy's funeral train makes its solemn journey from New York to Washington.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Set in June 1968, Rowell’s first novel revolves around the solemn train journey that brought the body of slain Sen. Robert Kennedy from Penn Station to Washington, D.C., for burial. Of the many people who gathered along the way to watch the train pass (famously captured by photographer Paul Fusco), Rowell focuses on a handful of stories. Following long tradition and in his father’s footsteps, Lionel Chase reports for his first day’s work as a Pullman porter on the funeral train itself; Irish nanny Maeve McDerdon has come to D.C. to interview for a position with Ethel Kennedy, and with the loss of that opportunity finds herself adrift; Delores King is determined to see the train pass, but to do so she must deceive Arch, her disapproving husband; fifth-grader Michael Colvert is coping with a private trauma of his own; while veteran Jamie West, who recently returned from Vietnam minus a leg, waits for a newspaper reporter who will write a story that may help Jamie heal, or add insult to injury. Though Rowell is a respected journalist, he has a novelist’s eye for the crucial, telling detail. In clean, elegant prose he recreates the lives of individuals mired in one of the most turbulent years of the century. (Oct.)
Booklist
[T]his closely observed novel...[is] an evocative debut...
Library Journal
Rowell's debut novel presents alternating scenes from the lives of several people along the route of the train carrying Robert F. Kennedy's body from New York to Washington, DC, in June 1968. Jamie is a Vietnam vet adjusting to his radically altered life as an amputee; Lionel is a black college student beginning a summer job as a porter on the train; Irish-born Maeve intended to seek a nanny position with the Kennedy family. They and other characters are all affected by the national tragedy. Lionel witnesses the assassination's impact on the older railroad workers; after Martin Luther King's assassination, many had viewed Kennedy as the black community's last hope. Her plans upended, Maeve goes to Union Station to witness the funeral train's arrival and is caught in a mob scene. Jamie, interviewed by a reporter who attended his high school, addresses his past and attempts to verbalize his feelings about his injury and his future. VERDICT Some of the stories in this multifaceted work are better than others, but overall the author succeeds admirably in involving the reader in his characters' lives. He also fills in fascinating details about a critical event in American history. [See Prepub Alert, 4/11/11.]—Jim Coan, SUNY Coll. at Oneonta
Library Journal
An editor at the Washington Post Magazine, Rowell has an affecting idea for his first novel: he follows six characters whose lives are profoundly touched by the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Not surprisingly, this book was inspired by Paul Fusco's moving photo-essay, RFK Funeral Train, and a book trailer will use images from that book. Likely to attract attention; watch.
Kirkus Reviews

Washington Post editor Rowell locates his journalistic first novel at the intersection between private lives and national events, in this case Robert Kennedy's death.

As the train carries Kennedy's body from New York to D.C., Rowell cuts in and out among a cross section of Americans who live along the route, or in one case are visiting the area. The weakest stories are those about the black characters: a porter assigned to the Kennedy train his first day on the job and a concierge at a quality D.C. hotel who walks the generational line between dignity and servility. Both threads strive for complexity but bear too heavy a stamp of white liberal sympathy. Similarly, the story of an Irish born young woman up for a job as the Kennedys' new nanny is a little too full of charm and blarney to feel realistic. On the other hand, fully believable is the disabled Vietnam vet being interviewed as a hero by a former high-school classmate (never a friend) for the local paper. As tensions and disappointments roil together along with miscommunications, the vet's increasing isolation from his supportive but clueless family is gut-wrenching without being sentimental. So are the ill-fated adventures of a well-meaning middle-class woman sneaking off with her little girl to see the funeral train despite her husband's rabid conservatism. Tension rises as she makes one poor choice after another until tragedy strikes, when readers are sucker-punched by her husband's surprising emotional sensitivity. A more quietly painful plotline concerns a young boy recently "kidnapped" by his divorced father. Forcibly returned to his mother, whom he also loves, the boy plays out his emotional confusion while horsing around with his friends on the train tracks. In contrast, Rowell takes a detached, minimalist approach to depict pot-smoking, angst-ridden suburbanites celebrating their new swimming pool.

The Kennedy train is a weak link here between plot segments that are stylistically disjointed and lack any deeper thematic connection.

Valerie Sayers
…Rowell is as interested in depicting the unraveling culture as he is in reclaiming the history of Kennedy's assassination, but real events are crisply and memorably delivered…Rowell writes narrative with the clarity of good reporting…and if these multiple story lines don't get resolved—as with grief, there's no such thing as closure—they ultimately add up to a sweeping view of a roiling country. This is a novel with its own panoramic vision of the optimism and hope engendered by Kennedy's run for the presidency, and of the deep, confused grief unloosed by his slaying.
—The Washington Post
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780399157288
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 10/13/2011
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

David Rowell

David Rowell is an editor at The Washington Post Magazine and has taught literary journalism at American University in Washington, D.C. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. This is his first novel.

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 2, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Compelling and thought-provoking. The Train of Small Mercies affords us a tiny glimpse of people made somber by tragedy.

    I don't think I've ever read a book quite like this one. As the train moves through each state, you feel as if you are one of the mourners, waiting for the train to come through town. There is so much going on with these people. They all have their own challenges and somehow, they come together for this one purpose. What I enjoyed most is that the story flows effortlessly. The story's pace never falters and although the story's point of view alternates between characters, the momentum is never lost. I think in part, this is due to how well-developed each storyline is. The chapters are brief, but include just the right amount of detail. I eagerly turned the pages and enjoyed this one quite a bit. The Train of Small Mercies will appeal to all types of readers.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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