I just read an Advanced Reader Copy of Fran Cannon Slayton’s debut middle-grade novel, WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS, after winning it as part of a prize pack of debut novels.
The book — set in 1940s Virginia — is half about the protagonist Jimmy’s relationship with his dad (the mom is such a minor character that I kept forgetting she was living; more distortions of my fairy tale-centric childhood?). And it’s half about Jimmy’s relationship with the book’s other central character: the railroad where the family’s men work, and where Jimmy is desperate to go to work himself.
The centrality of the railroad had a special resonance for me because I read a ton about Eugene Debs last summer, including Ray Ginger’s beautiful biography THE BENDING CROSS. Debs grew up as the railroad era was beginning, and it was the major influence on his early life; he was enthralled with their power, and he dropped out of school to work for them as soon as he could, as a 16-year-old in 1871 — exactly what Slayton’s Jimmy wishes his father would let him do. In fact, though, Debs was later bitterly regretful at having truncated his formal education; I think he’d have been the first to tell Jimmy to listen to his father.
But he’d also have understood Jimmy’s desperate drive to grow up, to take a ‘man’s job,’ and most of all, to do it on the railroads. Debs quit railroading only a few years in, with extreme reluctance, prevailed upon by his mother’s concern for his safety. As emerges in Slayton’s story, railroad work was immensely dangerous; in Debs’s time, the railroad workers’ associations (called Brotherhoods) were basically insurance clubs whose main function was issuing death benefits to the widows of men killed on the job.
But Debs, still fascinated by the railroad he was no longer working for and desperate to avoid the boring life of a retail clerk, leaped into organizing the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, transforming it into a true union and leading the first national strike in U.S. history. It was 1877, and he was 22 years old. Debs’s increasing recognition of the depth of exploitation in the railroad industry, the tight collaboration among its monopolistic owners and the government, the violence with which they would maintain the profitability of their industry, and the inability of conservative union professionals to challenge any part of this, helped him to become possibly the most important labor leader in American history. His own obsession with the railroad was emblematic of his era; the class struggle this led him to spark would define the next era.
Slayton’s story bookends this history. Like Debs, Jimmy sees before him two possible lives — the life of a grocery clerk or life on the railroads — and knows which he wants, despite all the objections of his family. And like Debs, Jimmy finds that the railroad can’t live up to the promise it seemed to hold for his own life, and has to find a third path for himself.
But Debs’s transformation was at the beginning of the railroad era, and the era of unionization; Jimmy’s comes as its end. Whereas Debs’s disillusionment was that the railroads never lived up to the sense of social progress they seemed to promise, Jimmy’s problem is that time is progressing on, whether he likes it or not. The railroad jobs he knows are dying — the steam engines around which his entire town is organized replaced by diesel. His solution, too, will be of a more solely personal nature than Debs’s; indeed, no union is ever mentioned in the book, and his dad, who’s some sort of foreman, pays out of pocket to maintain the income of some of the displaced workers.
In that sense, I think, WHERE THE WHISTLE BLOWS isn’t only a portrayal of Jimmy’s time (which actually was itself a time of substantial and militant class struggle), but of ours: it’s a beautifully-told story of having hopes destroyed by economic forces out of one’s control, but finding recourse in one’s personal relationships and character. At this point in American history, the Debsian solution isn’t one that most people can imagine. I wonder, as the economic crisis continues, what other kinds of stories we might begin to see.
Tomorrow’s follow-up post: The unusual storytelling method of WHERE THE WHISTLE BLOWS.