07 October 2010

Rave Review: The Last Train

In the interest of full disclosure, I need to make a confession: I am a former railway conductor. I worked for Midland Mainline, a railway operating company in England, for four years, working my way up from trolley dolly to guard. There was a time when I knew every bump in the line from Sheffield to London. Whenever I stand on a station platform, and watch a train leave, I am sorry for the adventure I am not having. In brief, as far as trains are concerned, I am soooooo biased.

The Last Train is based on a song by musician Gordon Titcomb, a song which he admits was heavily influenced by the railroad songs that came before. It is an extremely personal book. It isn't about the diesel-spouting High Speed Trains (HST's) that I used to work on. Rather, it is a nostalgic look at an age of shoveling coal and lonely whistles in the night; of an industry which shrank in this country so as to be almost unrecognizable. The title page shows a young boy, through whose eyes we follow the story, standing in front of a steam engine. On either side of him is a conductor and an engineer. We eventually discover that this is in fact his father and grandfather. Illustrations of the boy standing in front of a derelict station or walking beside a line overrun with weeds and wildflowers serve to show us how the last train to roll through his town spelled not just the end of an industry, but the loss of his legacy as well.

Lest the book sink into melancholy, the story is buoyed by the memories of the glory days of steam. The text is quite poetic. I particularly liked, "A ticket punch that clicked a million snowflakes every year." What a lyrical way to describe a rather routine job for a conductor. The text is complemented by the grand paintings of Wendell Minor. He makes full use of double page spreads to present a panorama worthy of the far-reaching power of a steam train, whether showing an approaching engine or zooming in on a detail of pennies flattened on the line ("little metal tears/That a railroad cries before it disappears.") Significantly, when Minor is representing individuals--a brakeman, a porter, a fireman--he forgoes the double-spread paintings for smaller, compact portraits. By focusing on the individuals with more intimacy, he reiterates the personal nature of the book. His paintings are literal to the text, which is an especially effective technique in a story where holding on to memories is vital.

When a conductor sees a train away from the platform (at least in England,) they are required, for various safety reasons, to look out a window (preferably from the last coach) and watch until the train has left the platform completely. There were many times, late night shifts in particular, when I would look out, and as the train curved along the bend of the track, the only light I could see was from the train itself. That lonely light in a dark night is, for me, evocative of the romance of trains and the railway life in general. Trains are powerful, magnificent, revolutionary machines. Yet even they gave way in the face of advancing technology. There is a painting towards the end of the book which visualizes this truth perfectly: a train (not even a steamie, but a diesel) rides along the rail while an airplane flies above it in the opposite direction. The plane's contrails leave a cloudy, imitation rail of its own in the sky.

Fortunately, trains--like dinosaurs--have immense kid appeal. The sort of appeal that is not generally outgrown (case in point--me!) The last train might have rolled through a lost America, but with books like this one, it can always roll through one more time.


Folk fans take note: Arlo Guthrie, who recorded one of the most famous railroad songs ever, wrote the forward. Also, a list of Railroad Museum websites is provided to promote trainspotting delight. Thank you to Florence and Wendell Minor for providing me with a copy of the book to review.

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