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September 22, 2010

New Books: On the Blue Comet

Rosemary Wells’s name is familiar to parents of young children from her picture books, particularly the hugely popular Max & Ruby series. But I hadn’t been aware that she also writes chapter books for older kids until I came across her newest one, On the Blue Comet. (In fact, she’s written quite a number of them.)

It’s the story of a boy named Oscar, who is being raised by his dad, a John Deere salesman, in 1920s Illinois. Father and son alike are obsessed with trains, and they spend most of their free time working on a handmade diorama of Lionels that Dad acquires, a fully fleshed-out miniature version of America’s real passenger lines from New York to Los Angeles. It’s a happy childhood for Oscar until the Depression hits, and his father loses first his job, then the house and all the trains (both repossessed by the town’s bank). Dad goes out to California seeking work, leaving Oscar with a prim, tightwad aunt, and suddenly the boy’s life feels as empty as it had been full before.

But he soon strikes up a friendship with an out-of-work math teacher named Applegate, who not only helps him with his homework but introduces him to some other subjects, like the poetry of Kipling and even the theories of Einstein. This education serves Oscar well when, trying to escape from a pair of bank robbers after witnessing their crime, he magically leaps into his old train set in the bank lobby, and finds himself on his way to Los Angeles to find his father. He soon discovers that the magic (which seems to have some relation to what Applegate has told him about Einstein) also involves time travel. The 11-year-old finds himself traveling to World War II–era Hollywood and back to pre-Depression New York—and becoming older and younger accordingly—in an attempt to set things right for himself and his family.

Wells mixes historical figures into her tale—both a pre-politics Ronald Reagan and a 1940s-era Alfred Hitchcock befriend the boy (they’re disguised by the names “Dutch” and “Mr. H.,” but any doubts are removed by the marvelous photorealistic illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline), and back on pre-crash Wall Street, Oscar faces down the titans of Wall Street, including a hostile Joseph Kennedy. While that starts to sounds as if there’s some sort of political agenda here, it’s really more about mythological America tropes; FDR is considered a heroic figure in the narrative, and the bad guys are typical movie bankers of the Old Man Potter variety.

The addition of these real people into the narrative is cute, but in a way distracts attention from the most impressive thing about Wells’s book: She can write a page-turner, with or without historical celebrities. The pace is snappy, and while real and fictional characters alike tend toward the stereotypical, the overall effect is much that of a good early 20th-century action-adventure movie—an early Hitchcock like The 39 Steps, say!

Wells also handles the magical element of her story expertly, providing just enough vague background (the Einstein stuff) to make it seem broadly plausible, and then getting the mechanics out of the way so the story can shoot off from the premise. Which it most certainly does, like one of Oscar’s trains. And kids ranging from 7 to 12 or so are sure to get a big kick out of it all.

[Cover image courtesy of Candlewick Press]

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