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Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Train Times, Book Times

The Southwest is still very much train country. The photograph above shows an engine (pulling a long line of freight cars) crossing Ocotillo Avenue in Benson, Arizona. There is a passenger train that stops in Benson, also, but while it races through Willcox, it does not stop there. I wish it did.

When I was growing up, ours was very much a train family. My grandfather was a “hogger” (engine driver) on the Pennsylvania Railroad, first with a steam engine, later with diesel. Two of his brothers were conductors. After World War II, my father’s first job, with his bachelor of science in civil engineering, was as head of a survey crew for the Milwaukee Road. That explains why I was born in Aberdeen, South Dakota. 

Before my third birthday, my father took a job with the Elgin, Joliet, & Eastern Railway in Joliet, Illinois. The EJ&E ran only freight, no passenger trains, but for some reason EJ&E employees had discounts on passenger lines — 50% off for adults and children over 12, with children under 12 riding free. That was coach, of course, so we could either sleep sitting up in our seats or pay full price for private space — “roomettes,” or whatever. And we paid full price for our meals in the dining car, too.

(I am old enough to remember — this is a scary realization! tell me you can’t believe it! — one trip where we rode in one of those old sleeper cars you see in movies, with top and bottom bunk beds on either side of a center aisle and only curtains for privacy. We changed into pj’s behind the curtains. Really!) 

Recently I picked up two books written for young people. Rod’s Dog, by Jean Bailey, published in 1954, begins with twelve-year-old Rodney Colwill (who hates being called Rodney) riding a train from Chicago to Kansas to live with his uncle and aunt for a year while his mother and engineer father are away on a job his father has in South America. Rod is unhappy about leaving his friends, his “gang,” in the city, so unhappy he can’t even respond to the conductor’s friendliness or enjoy the view from the train windows.

I Am Lavina Cummings, by Susan Lowell, is a historical novel. It is 1905, and Lavina, ten years old, has grown up on a ranch in southern Arizona. Lavina loves the ranch. Being Lavina of the Bosque Ranch is her identity. But her mother has died, and her father feels she is more likely to learn to be a “lady” if raised by her aunt in Santa Cruz, California, rather growing up wild on the ranch with her father and three brothers. She is adept at working cows on her pony, Chum, and is not afraid of rattlesnakes. But once on the train, she is excited by the passing scenery and sights.

In each story, the child is traveling by train alone. (In a story set today, the child would undoubtedly be traveling by air.) Rod is going from city to country (in the middle of the 20th century), Lavina from country to city (at the dawn of the 20th century). My sympathies at first were all with Lavina. I mean, she had to leave her pony! Heartbreak! But Lavina was brave and excited and curious about what lay ahead. I am not very far into the story yet....

It took Rod much longer (I finished his story this morning) to adapt to the changes in his life. Eventually, however, he made peace with country life. What helped enormously — and here my sympathy was all with him — was a little black dog! And that certainly makes sense!

(dog story, not train story)
Neither of these is really a train story, though, and that makes me wonder just how many books there are with stories that stay right on the train. Right away I think of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, of course. Then there is Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar; The Old Patagonian Express; and Riding the Iron Rooster, a wonderful travel book about train travel through China. Also, last year I read what has been so far my favorite book of Mexican history, with history incorporated into what is also a travel book, the marvelous Yesterday’s Train: A Rail Odyssey Through Mexican History, by Terry Pindell, with Lourdes Ramirez Mallis. There must be more fiction set on trains, though, no? Can anyone think of novels with train settings, either passenger trains or hobos riding boxcars? I do not count The Boxcar Children, because their boxcar was no longer attached to a train when they moved into it.

Here is a sweet little something in the back of the hardcover copy of Rod’s Dog that other bibliophiles and amateurs (lovers) of old books will recognize. The tiny, unobtrusive bookstore sticker tells where this book was originally purchased new. Lancaster, Pennsylvania! And somehow it found its way to Willcox, Arizona! Seeing it, my bookselling idea for today is that it may be time for independent bookstores to bring back these stickers. I’m thinking that with growing enthusiasm for indies (the personal and local experience over the impersonal, online purchase), bookstore customers might appreciate a reminder of where they had found each of their books and which bookstores they  had supported with their custom. The visibility of the bookstores themselves would last longer in memory, too.

It’s a small idea, and I am not a marketing consultant, but I wonder if other booksellers think this could catch on.

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