Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Monday, September 23, 2013

Coast To Coast

With so many Western television shows airing when I was growing up, it's no wonder I feel an attachment to that particular era in history.  There usually seemed to be significant happenings with the arrival or departure of trains, not to mention the perils of traveling by rail.  Who wouldn't dream of riding on the train featured prominently in The Wild, Wild West?

One can only imagine the wonder people felt with the completion of the transcontinental railroad; reaching the Pacific coast from the East without having to journey by foot, on the back of an animal or in a wagon pulled by them.  The pleasure of being able to enjoy the country you were passing through without all the responsibilities must have been (still is) like a sliver of heaven.  Brian Floca's Locomotive (A Richard Jackson Book, Atheneum Book for Young Readers, September 3, 2013), the recipient of five starred reviews, takes us back in time to 1869 for a trip on the recently completed line from Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, California.

made for crossing the country,
a new road of rails
made for people to ride.

Before starting to journey down that road we are given a brief look at the men who helped build this cross-country connection, of the work they needed to do and how they did it.  A family waits at the station, everything sold, owning only what they can carry, for the locomotive to arrive, cars strung out behind.  Amid the noise, the puffs of smoke, the colorful iron horse with her crew comes into view.

Before leaving the station, we get a peek inside the cab, where the fireman feeds coal into the firebox and the engineer pushes and pulls an assortment of levers to make the locomotive begin to move.  As Engine 23 hauls the passenger-filled cars down the tracks, the engineer rides and guides the machine with an experienced hand.  Miles pass and views change, The Platte River Valley, The Great Plains.  Inside the cars, tickets are taken, goods are sold, and people settle in for the ride.

Stopping at stations along the way, the tender tank is filled with water, people eat at the railroad restaurant and engines and their crews are exchanged.  As night falls, depending on your class, beds are made by porters or you get comfortable next to your seatmate.  When the sun rises the next morning, the landscape is changing, necessitating the need for an additional engine.  There are mountains to climb.

As the train chugs down the tracks, crossing narrow wooden bridges, landmarks whizzing by, the fireman and engineer give great care to their charge.  A mistake could cause a derailment or an explosion.  Finally the highest point is reached, the meeting of the two railroads, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory.  A wood consuming engine replaces the coal-feed locomotive.

Traveling across, down and up deserts, valleys and mountains, some more famous than others, Donner Pass, under structures to keep snow off the tracks and through dark tunnels, the locomotive goes carrying precious cargo toward its destination. Down, down, it journeys, wheels spinning, brakes at the ready, easing up on the steam, to slow and stop.  Its mission is accomplished; a vision made into a reality.

It's easy to recognize the research necessary to pen a narrative such as Brian Floca has done in Locomotive.  Every passage speaks to and seeks to inform the reader.  A rhythm has been generated by his word selections; we hear the sounds of hammers pounding in spikes, smoke steaming from the engine, the whistle announcing the locomotive's plans.  Vivid descriptions of what the crew does and feels as well as the passengers' daily routines on this trip, give readers a true sense of being in the same experience.  With sensory language Floca describes the scenery in all its wild, western splendor.  Here are a couple of examples.

The hours and miles roll by.

The country opens,
opens wide,
empty as an ocean.

Smell the switchgrass and the bluestem,
hot beneath the sun.

Here the bison used to roam,
by the hundreds, by the millions.

Up, up, the engines climb.
If the rails are slick,
if the wheels won't catch,
the engineers can pull a handle
to drop some sand
down a tube, onto the tracks.
The wheels hit the grit,
the traction does the trick!

Up, up---
through spruce and pines,
past mills and mines...

Rendered in watercolor, ink, acrylic and gouache, the intricate, meticulous illustrations filled with life and emotion of Brian Floca call out to readers with every single element of the book.  You can almost hear the engine huffing and chugging down the track toward you on the front jacket or imagine the relative silence except for the voices of workers as they maintain an engine in the yard on the back jacket.  Removing the jacket, a breathtaking vista of the plains covered with buffalo, what it must have been like before the railroad's presence, greets readers.  You could study the opening and closing endpapers for hours; maps, small delicate pictures, recreations of railroad timetables, an explanation of steam power and a cross-section of an locomotive.  They're an amazing depiction done in a softened palette of realistic colors with prevalent browns and golden shades.

The title page features an introduction to the family who travels toward their husband and father through a photograph, a telegraph message, and several Trans-Continental Railroad Guides.   Floca's illustrations spread edge to edge across double or single pages, wrapping around or highlighting the text.  When appropriate small visuals draw attention to a particular portion of his narrative.  The changes in text size and placement serve to further engage readers in being a part of this particular past; a past well-worth visiting.  The hand-written labels for places is the perfect touch, like reading the front of a postcard.  Two of my favorite illustrations are of the locomotive traveling through The Platte River Valley, with the side and front view of moving down the tracks, and the close-up of the locomotive departing from the station in the dead of night.

Locomotive written and illustrated by Brian Floca is a work of art in every sense of the word.  The blend of text and illustrations is seamless inviting readers to read it again and again gaining some new piece of information or perspective each time.  It's not only a book to be read for the words and pictures but also for the texture of the pages, thick matte finished paper, giving one the feeling of holding history.

To access Brian Floca's website follow the link embedded in his name above.  This link is to a series of illustrations and sketches for the book prior to its release.  To read about the research involved in creating this title, follow this link to Kirkus where Brian Floca speaks with Julie Danielson.  At the publisher's website are more visuals from the book.  Brian Floca has an extensive author's note and bibliographic information at the end of this title.  Here is a link to an extensive curriculum guide.

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