From time to time I like to consider books linked by titles or themes or in some other way. Today the link is trains. Trains take people away from loved ones, and towards others. The cast of characters is random and usually constant, at least while the train is moving. These features make trains ideal settings for murder mysteries: think Murder on the Orient Expressby Agatha Christie (1934), or Strangers on a Trainby Patricia Highsmith (1950). And a station obscured by steam is a perfect setting for dramatic events: Anna Karenina by Tolstoy (1877) is an example.
My list of train books is slightly quirky. It includes two novels, two wartime accounts and the events on a station that led to the most significant publishing revolution of the last century.
The Underground Railroadby Colson Whitehead (2016)
The underground railroad was a means by which slaves from the American Southern States were helped to escape and find freedom in the North. Making the railroad a concrete thing, with stations, tracks, engines, engineers and boxcars, was a daring move by Colson Whitehead. It had the effect of emphasising the hard work of building the network, maintaining it and it also exposed the vulnerability of the routes to freedom and the many ways to disrupt it. This is hard and important read. Here’s a link to the reviewof this book on Bookword in October 2017.
A Wreath of Rosesby Elizabeth Taylor (1949)
This novel is not primarily about trains or train journeys, but the train is significant in the scene that opens the novel and announces the changes that Elizabeth Taylor will explore.
Afternoons seem unending on branch-line stations in England in summer time. The spiked shelter prints an unmoving shadow on the platform, geraniums blaze, whitewashed stones assault the eye. Such trains as come only add to the air of fantasy, to the idea of the scene being symbolic, or encountered at one level while suggesting another even more alienating. (1)
We have been warned. The scene seems unchanging, stultifying. We encounter something else after this wonderful sentence.
Then, with a collapsing sound, the signal dropped. (2)
Three people on the platform, Camilla, another traveller and the stationmaster, observe the approach of the through train.
All at once, the man on the footbridge swung himself up on the parapet and, just as Camilla was putting out her arms in a ridiculous gesture as if to stop him, he clumsily jumped, a sprawling jump, an ill-devised death, since he fell wide of the express train.
This happening broke the afternoon in two. The feeling of eternity had vanished. (3)
The opening scene introduces us to the idea of impermanence and transition. Camilla and Richard are both on journeys. She is travelling to Abingford to spend August with her friends. He is in flight from his past, looking for respite. This is a dark novel exploring loneliness as so many of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels do. You can find the full review here.
A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead (2011)
Trains played an infamous role in the Holocaust. 230 French women were sent to Auschwitz in January 1943, arrested for anti-German activities. This book is a depressing account of their experience of barbarity, inhumanity and suffering.
The culpability of the Vichy government, the French police, the German occupiers of France, the many who betrayed the communists and members of the Resistance, the guards and commanders of the camps, the medical staff, the Kapos is overwhelming. And so is the disappointment of the women who were largely ignored on their return to France.
What kept the 49 women who survived alive? Friendship, care for each other, courage, hope and a determination to tell the story of what they had experienced and seen.
Train to Nowhereby Anita Leslie (1948)
The title of this book could be considered misleading, as no train appears in it. The title refers to the journey being over. This train is going nowhere.
Another wartime book, this time the account of a well-connected young woman who joined the MTC as a mechanic and was sent to the Middle East during the Second World War. She drove ambulances, until the war moved away. Then she became a journalist, chasing stories and promoting circulation of the newspaper for the troops. When she could see that there was no prospect for action, she transferred to Italy, and followed the Allies up through Italy, pausing for the last days of the Battle of Cassino. As the British Army and Red Cross would not allow ambulance drivers near the front line she transferred to the French army and supported the battles in Alsace and then into Germany.
Her account is especially sparkling when it refers to the people she worked with, met on her travels, the lunches she was invited to (including by Churchill as she was his cousin) and several ranking army personnel. But the strongest impression is of the bravery as her division went into battle and the drivers ferried the wounded to hastily set up, often fast moving, medical facilities.
Exeter Station and a publishing revolution
The story goes that in 1934 returning from a weekend with Agatha Christie, at Greenway above the River Dart, Allen Lane had to wait on the Exeter St David’s station platform. Already working for Bodley Head, frustrated by the shortage of cheap and portable books, and no doubt influenced by recent contact with a popular author he conceived the idea for the Penguin paperback.
The original format was soon expanded to Pelicans (non-fiction and blue) and Puffins (for children). The original orange covers of the Penguins later diversified into green for detective novels, black for classics, and other colours, such as purple for essays. Allen Lane’s intentions were anti-elitist. In All About Penguin Books in The BooksellerMay 1935 he said the project would be a success if
these Penguins are the means of converting book borrowers in to book-buyers.
He was, he said, aiming at nothing less than
the popularisation of the bookshop and the increased sale of books.
You can find the full story here.
Please suggest more books with train links.
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