Review: The Train of Small Mercies by David Rowell

Title: The Train of Small Mercies
Author: David Rowell
Pages: 272
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Release Date: October 13th, 2011
Publisher: Putnam
Source: ARC provided by publisher

In the summer of 1968 Senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in a Los Angeles hotel. After laying in repose in New York City, Kennedy's body was transported via rail to Washington, D.C. for burial. Thousands of people stood along the tracks hoping to catch a glimpse of the train and pay their respects as it passed. For many, Kennedy symbolized hope for those who felt misunderstood and mistreated or for those who were looking for something better. 

The Train of Small Mercies presents short voyeuristic snippets of the lives of six different people on that historic day. Lionel is a black train porter starting his first day on the job aboard the funeral train while Maeve waits in D.C. to interview for a nanny position with the Kennedy family. Two characters must deal with returning home after an extended absence. Michael is a fifth grader who has just returned home after being kidnapped by his father over the summer, and Jamie has recently returned from Vietnam wounded and will be interviewing with a local newspaper. Finally, there are Edwin and his wife who are planning a party to celebrate their new backyard pool with an inaugural swim.

For the most part I enjoyed these little character portraits. Rowell's writing was very straightforward and polished. Edwin's story was the only one that felt out of place to me. All of the characters in that vignette were awkward and didn't ring as true as in the other ones. The glimpses into each character's life were small, so there wasn't as much closure as I would have liked, but I completely understand given the format. The timeline didn't need to be longer but more descriptions and details would have been nice. Overall, each story leaves the reader more curious to know the ending, but not in a suspenseful way. The central theme of hope loosely ties these stories together with the action lying in the train and its journey and less in each character's individual story.

While I can't say I loved this collection, I did enjoy reading something different than the usual novel. The Train of Small Mercies uses each individual story along with many cultural and sentimental details to express the grief of a nation. My favorite story was the one about Vietnam veteran Jamie West who is trying to come to terms with his loss and find himself again. If the other stories had been as compelling as that one then the collection would have been more moving. However, there is a lot of promise in Rowell's debut, and I will probably pick up his next work to see if the story better matches the wonderful writing.


  1. I've never heard of this book but I'll gobble up just about anything having to do with politics or DC. I'll have to check it out!

  2. This book does seem to have a very unusual premise, and that intrigues me. I bet it would be something that I could really get into. I am glad that you also thought it was unusual and interesting, and you wrote a really wonderful review on it!

  3. I read this one a couple of months ago, and I liked it more than you seem to. I thought the snapshot format was very realistic - kind of a "where you were you when..." view of history. I guess that format does not appeal to everyone, though. If you'd like to read my review, you can find it here.

  4. I thought that Rowell writes very well, but I just didn't find the stories particularly compelling, and I was distracted by the constant switching between plot lines.

  5. I like to by short story collections, yet I rarely read them for some reason --weird - I know. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one Jen.

  6. I have this sitting on my tbr stack. I thought it sounded interesting as I am always curious about what people were doing when historic things happen. I am glad to hear you enjoyed the author's writing even though you weren't crazy about the book.


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