Quote of the Month

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

Monday, January 5, 2015

On The Tracks

If someone were to tell me the only way to get somewhere is by train, I would be thrilled.  To be able to sit in a seat watching the cities and landscape coast by the window, reading or resting is my idea of the best way to travel.  Over the years almost all of my journeys by train have been memorable in a good way.

When lines of track were originally being laid to connect eastern parts of the country with the west, the passenger cars were considerable different than they are today; not only due to modern conveniences.  The variances in decor, comfort level and amenities afforded people based upon class were striking. When I learned Kenneth Oppel's newest title, The Boundless (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, April 22, 2014), bore the name of a train in which most of the action takes place, I was more than willing to heed the call of the whistle.

Three hours before the avalanche hits, William Everett is sitting on an upturned crate, waiting for his father.

Will has not seen his father, James Everett a builder of the Canadian Pacific Railway, for three years.  While waiting to meet the train bearing him and a host of other workers, one of Will's sketchbooks draws the attention of a circus performer about Will's age.  The girl is an aerialist with a dream to become the world's most famous escape artist.  When a small train from the opposite direction, pulling some rather elaborate cars, appears she disappears.

On that train is none other than Cornelius Van Horne,

general manager, engineer, visionary---slave driver, some call him, according to Will's dad.

As luck would have it, Will is invited to travel with Van Horne and the other gentlemen joining in the celebration of driving in the last spike, a spike of solid gold with diamonds spelling the name Craigellachie.  An avalanche, encounters with sasquatches, threats from the evil Brogan, a thief with no qualms about taking a life if necessary, the saving of the gold spike and Van Horne, change James Everett's and William Everett's lives in ways they could never have imagined.  Chapter one ends with you having to remind yourself to breathe.

Three years later James and Will are boarding The Boundless, an immense train with 987 cars, pulled by a steam engine with a three-story boiler and 6,495 people as passengers.  It is her maiden voyage traveling from the east to the west.  One of the cars is a funeral car, loaded with treasures and secrets and carrying the body of Cornelius Van Horne.  It is his wish to always travel with The Boundless back and forth across the country.  Only two people have a key to unlock its hidden door, the guard and James Everett.

Will is astounded at the opulence of the first-class stateroom in which he will be traveling as his father is to serve as one of the engineers.  His desire to find an earlier acquaintance (remember the aerialist) will have Will running to catch the caboose at the train's end and wondering from one minute to the next when a cold-blooded killer will find him.  Will is the sole witness to a murder and everyone's lives on The Boundless depend on him reaching his father miles ahead in the locomotive.

Mr. Dorian, ringmaster of the Zirkus Dante circus cars numbering over eighty, Maren, escape artist and aerialist, and Will have a plan.  Chapter by chapter, class by class, and train car by train car, they and their plan move forward with more twists and turns than the train makes through the Canadian wilderness.  Legends come alive in the great north and other legends are pursued as death makes its presence known.  A conclusion as gripping as the opening chapter and all the pages in between will have you shaking your head as if awakening from a dream.

There is urgency in the writing of Kenneth Oppel with the telling of this story.  Acts of nature are told with such vivid clarity you will find yourself swimming alongside new acquaintances as they try to survive an avalanche.  Single sentences provide instant glimpses into the depths of peoples' hearts; either good or evil.  Conversations between the cast of characters fully flesh out individual personalities.  You can't help but feel empathy or disgust, sadness or elation or fear.

Just enough detail of the train, inside and outside, is supplied to convey you into the array of miniature worlds within each car.  Each of these worlds, the circus, the colonists, the third class, the second class, the first class, the caboose, the brakemen, the porters and the engine emerge from the pages surrounding you as the tale progresses.  Whether within the train itself, on top of the train or in-between the cars as it races along the tracks or near the train in a small town or in the eerie muskeg each scene is described in mesmerizing detail.

Here are several passages from the book.

He looks at the track, gleaming as though it has just been set down.  Will imagines his father helping lay those long measures of steel.  He follows the track west, where it's quickly swallowed up by dense, snow-cloaked forest.  His eyes lift to the towering mountains---like the very world has raised its gnarled fists to keep you out.  How could you cut a road through such wilds?  Clouds graze the icy peaks, painting restless shadows across the furrowed slopes of rock and snow.

Twigs crackle.  A lantern handle creaks.  Will thinks he can hear Brogan breathing; he imagines his lantern in one hand and the knife in the other.  Abruptly the light goes out, and Will almost gasps.  For a few agonizing moments he is completely blind, completely helpless.  Silence.  He needs to breathe but waits for retreating footsteps that don't come.  He knows Brogan is just standing there in the darkness, waiting and listening.

"You were rash in the colonist cars," Mr. Dorian tells him quietly.  "You've revealed more than you should have."
Will wondered if he'd be reprimanded. "I'm sorry.  But it was terrible, what Peters was doing.  Why doesn't Sam Steele put a stop to it?"
"The Mounties don't patrol the colonist cars," Mr. Dorian says.  "They're left to sort out their own affairs."
"I'll talk to my father about it," says Will.  "They're too crammed back there.  Cattle are treated better."
"I agree with Will," Maren says. "It's not fair."
"Many things aren't fair," says Mr. Dorian placidly---but for the first time, Will realizes there's anger beneath this unnerving calm of his. "My father's people came from France to claim this land.  Then the English came and took it from the French.  Later the Americans tried to take it from the English.  As a Metis I've seen my people shunted and shamed.  I'm not numb to the hardship of these new colonists.  But they are, after all, just another group of Europeans come to take land that once belonged only to the Natives."

This book, The Boundless written by Kenneth Oppel, has enough action and adventure to make you feel like a coiled spring.  It's spun through the history of railroad development in Canada while parting the curtain to bring creatures of legend to life.  Once started you won't be able to do another thing until you've finished it.  I do know this to be true; I've read it twice.

To discover more about Kenneth Oppel and this title please follow the link embedded in his name to access the pages at his website dedicated to The Boundless.  This link takes you to his blog where numerous entries talk about specific aspects of the train and the characters.   Here is a link to a curriculum guide.  At the publisher's website several pages can be read.

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