Saturday, April 18, 2009

When the Whistle Blows by Fran Cannon Slayton


"Change comes, Jimmy. It'll thunder down the tracks towards you like an engine with the brakes gone out. And sometimes, there ain't a dagburn thing you can do to stop it." (from pages 121-122 of the advance uncorrected galley)

I thought of the sheer number of children's and young adult books published over the years and started to think that maybe writers have run out of fresh ways to tell coming-of-age stories. I read When the Whistle Blows (Philomel Books, 2009) by Fran Cannon Slayton and immediately banished the thought from my head.

Meet Jimmy Cannon and 1940s Rowlesburg, West Virginia, USA. Jimmy is passionate about the steam trains that are a very important part of life in Rowlesburg. The steam trains are also a very important part of Jimmy's family. His father is the foreman of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in Rowlesburg. His two older brothers are railroaders. All of his relatives going back to when the Cannons first came to America from Ireland were railroaders. Of course Jimmy wants to be a railroader too. Ironically, his father doesn't want him to be a railroader. Jimmy's father says that diesel engines will soon replace steam engines and that the change will negatively affect all railroad jobs.

Every chapter in When the Whistle Blows is a Halloween vignette. Halloween is a significant day for Jimmy because it is the birthday of his father, who is everything Jimmy wants to be. The first chapter is about Jimmy's Halloween in 1943 (when he is 12) and readers follow Jimmy every Halloween until 1949 (when he is 18). All of the vignettes tell one seamless coming-of-age story. I found this narrative technique fresh.

Another thing I found fresh about the novel was the absence of a love story. While romantic relationships are definitely part of growing up, I was personally very glad the novel focused on other aspects of growing up.

All the vignettes are exciting to read because they are about boyhood adventures. There's a championship football game, a secret society, pranks, and so much more to entertain and amuse. There is also a lot to touch and move readers. Jimmy's stories are not just about funny Halloween pranks, they are also about his relationships with family and friends, particularly his relationship with his father. They are a lot about change too. Jimmy's relationships change. His family changes and his town changes. By the end of the novel, the diesel trains have begun to replace the steam trains and many people in Rowlesburg lose their job or have to move away in order to keep it. Jimmy even has to deal with the death of a loved one a few Halloweens.

I highly recommend When the Whistle Blows. It is very well written, and fun and thought-provoking at the same time. While reading it I felt like I was growing up right along with Jimmy Cannon. I would buy copies of When the Whistle Blows for and/or lend my own copy to my nephews, godsons, close guy friends, and the sons of my friends. But I think any kind of reader will enjoy it. I certainly did.

When the Whistle Blows will be in stores starting June.

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