Our 2019 Children’s Books of the Year stand out from an increasingly troubling crowd
Company came for dinner last night, and the train went by as we talked long into the evening, the same train my brother said had gone in one ear and out the other, pantomiming as he stumbled sleepless from the guest room that time he came to visit. It’s too close to the house. The neighborhood is used to it, of course, to the point of not hearing, just as you don’t see notes stuck too long to the refrigerator.
Which is like that film where Alvy Singer grows up in a loud, opinionated Jewish family in a two-decker under the roller coaster at Coney Island, and they in unison hold their plates without looking at them when the silver barracuda barrels down outside the kitchen window. Everything becomes a fact of life.
I have lost two dogs to the tracks. One a fine greyhound, who took a notion that night to part from his routine and not meet me at the front door five minutes after bounding out the back. The other was a pit bull pup I owned less than a day. I also have a photo from the 1980s of a man-shaped white-shrouded figure straddling the rails a few houses down. And some years ago a local guidance counselor parked his car at the crossing, stepped onto the track, and waited. There was no way the conductor could stop in time.
People on trains look strange when you’re in my father’s vegetable garden and you see them sitting there reading a paper, in and out of your life in a second, like a thought you think you had. And when it’s you on the train seat and looking out, it’s people in the backyards of their houses who look strange.
Train whistles are some of my first memories, arresting me in play back then to conjure places far from what I knew firsthand.
Train whistles are some of my first memories, arresting me in play back then to conjure places far from what I knew firsthand, even nearby Milford, Mass., being as exotic to a 5-year-old as the Norse gods of Thor, Balder, and Tyr. Something better is out there, even children sense. A transcendence that ennobles the commonplace.
Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) sensed that transcendence: “The railroad track is miles away, / And the day is loud with voices speaking, / Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day / But I hear its whistle shrieking. / All night there isn’t a train goes by, / Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming, / But I see its cinders red on the sky / And hear its engine steaming. / My heart is warm with the friends I make, / And better friends I’ll not be knowing; / Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take, / No matter where it’s going.”
Henry David Thoreau had no use for the iron horses. In Walden Pond he disdains “shanties which everywhere border our railroads, that last improvement in civilization.” He recalls a conversation with a true believer: “One says to me, ‘I wonder that you do not lay up money; … you might take the cars and go to Fitchburg today and see the country.’ But I am wiser than that. I have learned that the swiftest traveller is he who goes afoot. I say to my friend, Suppose we try who will get there first. The distance is thirty miles; the fare ninety cents. That is almost a day’s wages. … Well, I start now on foot, and get there before night. … You will in the meantime have earned your fare, and arrive there sometime tomorrow. … Instead of going to Fitchburg, you will be working here the greater part of the day. … We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.”
One of our dinner guests breaks my daydream with a question. He would like to be a writer for an important magazine, and seeks my advice. I tell him what I know, and that is all: Do not attempt a modern War and Peace right off the bat. Take an idea you had that’s small enough to scrawl inside a postage stamp. Just some stray thought that comes to you while sitting at the table listening to after-dinner talk.