Tuesday, September 28, 2010

On the Blue Comet

By Rosemary Wells
Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
$16.99, ages 10 and up, 336 pages

Trouble comes to everyone, Oscar's dad suggests just before the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Like the whistle of a train or the voice of wolf, you can't help but hear it coming.

But suppose 11-year-old Oscar could go back and stop trouble before it ever happened?

In this wondrous book by award-winning Wells, Oscar loses everything he holds dear, but discovers just in time that if he longs for things hard enough, he might find a way to get them back.

Blending the magic of Lionel trains with theories of time travel, Wells tells the remarkable journey of a boy who gets separated from his father and nearly loses his life before finding his own happy ending on a model train.

Bagram Ibatoulline's paintings envelop you like a Norman Rockwell print and even though Oscar's world is filled with unpleasantness, glimpses of hope always come through in the pictures. 

Two years into the stock market disaster, the bottom falls out of Oscar's peaceful life in Cairo, Illinois. Not since his mother died in a fireworks plant explosion when he was 3 years old has Oscar felt his insides burn with so much fear and anger.

In one summer, his dad loses his job selling tractors, the bank repossesses their house and and bank president Mr. Pettishanks buys out their cherished Lionel trains, including Oscar's 11th birthday gift, the queen of all trains, the Blue Comet.

The trains were everything to Oscar and his dad. After supper they'd race down to the basement to reconstruct the Transcontinental Railroad track by track, and dream of one day boarding a life-size train, and riding up and down the continent.

On those perfect nights, Oscar would lay his head sideways on the layout grass and imagine he was no bigger than the cutout people on the trains, as they peeled around tracks from one side of the country to the other.

But now every one of them had to go. The money earned from selling the Lionel trains will be enough for Oscar's dad to buy a train ticket to California to look for work, and pay for room and board for a month.

Oscar, however, will have to stay behind in Illinois with his sour aunt and her adopted niece until a job comes through. As soon as he can, his dad promises, he'll mail Oscar a one-way ticket for the Golden State Limited to meet him in Los Angeles.

But the wait is hard and days drag on. Oscar's dad writes to him, but his dad doesn't have an address, so Oscar can't write back. Aunt Carmen is strict and unsympathetic to his dad's plight, and now Oscar is flunking math and Dad's not there to help him.

Oscar's only comforts are a bundle of toy train tickets stashed in his wallet and the afternoon hours he stays home alone at his aunt's to work on math and is able to sneak into the kitchen to make pancakes.

Then one day, while Oscar is on the front porch, a drifter offers to help him with his math and brings up theories of time travel. He suggests it's possible to find a shortcut through time using a phenomenon of negative velocity.

But it isn't until Oscar witnesses a terrible crime that he really understands what the drifter was saying.

One night after slipping into the bank where Mr. Pettishanks has set up Oscar's old trains, Oscar is hurled into a world of toy-size trains that takes him into the future and the past.

Along the way he meets a former president, is nearly drafted for a war he's too young to fight in and befriends a 10-year-old train passenger who tries to help Oscar change some of the horrible events that occurred in his present.

As magical as the Van Allsburg's Polar Express, On the Blue Comet is a classic in the making: a wonderfully imaginative tale that  makes your heart soar.

It also does something quite remarkable; it gets readers thinking about mathematical story problems and Einstein theories, and might even have them doing what I started to, reciting lines from Rudyard Kipling's If out of the blue.

But more than anything, Wells's book fills you with wonder and as you read it, you find yourself yearning to recreate some of the magic of childhood trains.

Immediately I wanted to start a layout of our own, with the hope that one day, we'd spy our boys laying their heads down on the fake grass, imagining their own incredible journey.

I just hope Lionel trains comes out with a special edition of the Blue Comet before Santa arrives!


  1. Although Oscar experiences a lot of sad events, it sounds like a book that many will enjoy reading. I wonder if it will have a happy ending?

    Thanks for sharing the review of this book. Great book cover!

  2. Wow, looks like the book would keep my son's attention! I will check it out.

  3. Interesting, this book is. Adding to my list, I will.

  4. That cover is bound to grab a lot of readers. I'll have to look for that one. The mix of fantasy and history sounds wonderful.