Continuing discussion of Fran Cannon Slayton’s WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS…
The most unusual thing about WTWB is that it’s told as a series of vignettes, one each Halloween from 1943 to 1949. At first, I found this narrative style frustrating. After the most arresting vignettes, I didn’t want to skip ahead a year; I wanted to know the aftermath.
The storytelling method grew on me, though. When I thought about it, I always did know what happened next; the vignette style was an economical way of forcing me to imagine the inevitable conclusion.
The seven-year timespan also lets the book’s central relationships — between Jimmy and his father, and Jimmy and the railroad — develop in a natural way. I recently noted, when reading JACOB HAVE I LOVED, that I think it’s rare for middle grade or young adult books to cover long periods of time (finite series like HARRY POTTER being an exception). In fact, now that I think of it, taking place over a particularly long timespan is one of the things that makes even a book that takes place mostly in adolescence come across to me as an “adult book.” It must be something about developing an implicitly adult perspective, looking back on life.
Anyway: one consequence of this tendency toward compressed time is that the conflict sometimes has to develop and be resolved artificially quickly — or at least, books have to take place during periods of crisis, in which a timespan of a few months can carry a narrative arc for something as major as the evolution of a son’s relationship with his father.
WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS, on the other hand, is a more naturalistic kind of story, where the changes between some years are subtle; others, more dramatic; and the story as a whole unfolds lackadaisically without wasting time. It’s a nicely different addition to my bookcase.