Review by Julia Glass, author of Three Junes and The Widower’s Tale
Among several impressive debut novels I’ve read in recent years, David Rowell’s is a hands-down standout; in fact, it’s hard to believe this book is his first. Like Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin—equally masterful in its plotting, equally moving in its kaleidoscopic ensemble of perspectives—The Train of Small Mercies takes us to the heart of a quiet but resonant moment in American history and, through that moment, deep into the hearts of numerous characters whose ordinary lives are touched and changed by the events of a single day.
According to an author’s note at the end of the novel, Rowell was inspired by the Paul Fusco photographs collected in the book RFK Funeral Train. In 1968, Look magazine assigned Fusco to document Robert Kennedy’s funeral in Arlington Cemetery—and to ride the train carrying the senator’s body from New York’s Penn Station to Union Station in Washington, D.C. En route, Fusco shot more than a thousand photographs of the mourners along the train tracks.
Through the eyes of imagined witnesses to the passage of that train (some intent on paying homage, others there by happenstance or obligation), Rowell creates an intricately linked chain of stories—each one utterly captivating—that coalesce into a vision of America in a year of turbulent change. Yet there is nothing “studied” or stiff about Rowell’s authentic portrait of this legendary moment in our history, and his ability to give us a window on that era through a wide range of particular viewpoints is simply stunning, whether he’s writing about a black Pullman porter whose first day on the job happens to be on the funeral train, a Vietnam vet struggling to find a new normal after losing a leg, a young Irish nanny who’d been hoping to land a job with the senator’s family, or a sixth-grade boy making the best of life after his parents’ divorce. All told, Rowell holds the reader in a state of wonder and suspense through half a dozen tales that come together gorgeously as one. The Train of Small Mercies shows us how the tiniest private moments are often inextricable from the most monumental public events, how collectively they define nothing less than history itself. What a generous and versatile imagination Rowell has; I can’t wait to see what he does next.
“[Rowell] has created nothing less than a portrait of America itself.”—Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto
“A novel of transcendent literary vision.”—Wells Tower, author of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
“What a tapestry, so evocative!”—Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge
“[A] rich and vivid novel.” —Ron Carlson, author of The Signal