Background: I met Fran Slayton last summer at an ALA KidLit blogger event hosted by Feiwel & Friends. But it wasn't the fact that I knew and liked Fran that inspired me to accept an advance copy of When the Whistle Blows. No, that was due to the glowing early blurbs that the book received from the likes of Richard Peck, Ellen Hopkins, and Betsy Bird (here). As you might expect, they were right, and I was not disappointed.
Review: Fran Cannon Slayton's When the Whistle Blows is a historical novel set in the 1940's. It's a beautifully written, quiet sort of book, but one that includes enough mad-cap fun to appeal to reluctant / dormant readers. When the Whistle Blows is the story of Jimmy, third son of a railroading family from Rowlesburg, West Virginia. It's about Jimmy's desire to work on the railroad, like his father and his older brothers, despite his father's wishes. In the bigger picture, it's about Jimmy's relationship with his taciturn father, and also about the death of the steam engine. In a series of littler pictures, When the Whistle Blows is about small-town life, from the mischief of young boys on Halloween night to the importance of hunting to the Rowlesburg community.
When the Whistle Blows is written in a structure that I've never seen before. Each first-person chapter takes place on the same day, but from a different year, advancing from 1943 to 1949. This structure makes the chapters feel a bit like interconnected short stories. What's brilliant about it is that it allows the reader to delve deeply into the individual incidents, while also seeing the bigger picture. We see how Jimmy's family evolves through time, and how the role of the steam engine changes in just a few short years.
When the Whistle Blows is an ode to a time and place that has meaning for the author's family. Fran Slayton's prose is lovely, understated, but cutting right to the heart of things that matter. While I've never met an adolescent male from 1940's West Virginia, of course, Jimmy's voice feels spot-on. And it must be a tricky balance, to write with the authentic, first-person voice of a small town boy, and to also make the writing lyrical. Slayton pulls this off handily. Here are a few examples:
"Every single time I jump on a train--my heart thumps even noisier in my ears than the clanking of the old iron horse I'm hopping up onto. I love stream trains. I love living in a town that's chock-full of 'em. I love being on 'em, being anywhere near 'em. They're as much a part of my life around here as the mountains. Or breathing." (Page 1, ARC)
"Our cat, Amos, yawns at me from the porch, his fangs reflecting the half-moon's light. It feels like it's still All Hallows' Eve, but now I'm not so sure. It was when I went to sleep. If you go to sleep and then wake up in the middle of the night, does that make it tomorrow? Or is it still today? I start to ask Mike, but he shushes me, putting his finger up to his lips." (Page 5, ARC)
"My ears suddenly prick up to all the sounds around me: the shifting of weight, the crunching of leaves, but most especially the frosty silence that drapes itself around us all like the white cloth on top of a coffin." (Page 38, ARC)
"Dad says they got all kinds of sense in New york City excepting the common kind." (Page 49, ARC)
When the Whistle Blows is sure to receive acclaim for Slayton's writing. But I think that it also has abundant kid appeal. Librarians, just ask your middle grade boys if they'd like to read a book in which a boy: hides in a graveyard and throw things at cars on Halloween; sneaks out at night to spy on an adult secret society; and faces off a train on a railroad bridge. If these incidents aren't boy-friendly, I don't know what is. When the Whistle Blows has my highest recommendation. I think that we'll be hearing about it more next year, come award time.
Publication Date: June 11, 2009
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the author. Quotes are from the ARC, and should be checked against the final book.
Other Blog Reviews: Granny Sue's News and Reviews, Sarah Miller, Practically Paradise, Lazygal Reads, 100 Scope Notes, Boys Read (mini-review, with blurbs from others)
Author Interviews: In Bed with Books, YA Book Nerd
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.