You thought I could pass up this National day of impor­tance? Trains were a big part of my childhood because they were a big part of my father’s childhood and carried him all the way into his old age. He built an electric railroad under our home in the Oakland hills. Not in the rumpus room (we are now clearly in the 1950s), but actually under the house in a “sort of basement.” And he built every­thing from kits, the engines, the model cars, and every­thing else that wound its way up and down the dirt and around foun­dation pilings.

In honor of National Train Day, I’ve posted my review of Key System Streetcars. I used to think it was cheating to call streetcars trains, but I’m all grown up now and realize the error of my ways. If it runs on a track, has a whistle (electric or steam), a ticket taker or person who hangs onto the train before it moves and shouts, All Aboard.….. Hey, it’s a train in my book.

It’s easy for children to love trains. Their lit­erary world is full of them: Awdry’s Thomas the Tank Engine; Van Allsburg’s Polar Express, Piper’s The Little Engine that Could, E. Nesbitt’s The Railway Children, Warner’s The Boxcar Children (yes, I know it was only one car and didn’t go any­where, but it still called out to adventure), San Souci’s Kate Shelley Bound for Legend, and thanks to Rowling, todays kids have the Hog­warts Express from Harry Potter.

Trains are found in adult lit­er­ature, as well. Trains can become char­acters (The Orient Express of Ms. Christie) and present exciting set­tings as found in Tolstoy, Hawthorne, King, and Dickens. Trains are an irre­sistible setting to play with — with the dif­ferent classes of cars, the dining car, lounge car, lava­tories and sleeping cars, they’re a per­fectly heightened and con­cen­trated microcosm of the bigger world, writers have the fun of playing with all those inter­sec­tions of class and story and a highly con­tained, rigid setting with a con­stantly changing land­scape. And because this is a book blog, I’m pur­posely omitting the rela­tionship between films and trains.

What is it exactly that compels us, if not to love, to at least acknowledge the admirability of trains? For starters, they’re big. Very big. And they’re polite, they announce them­selves with whistles and bell clanging gates that prevent us from getting in their way. And when you sleep on a train, in a Pullman car, they really do lull you to sleep when your head hits the pillow: cliickety-​​clack, clickety-​​clack.

Trains are almost imag­inary things, but also happily real. They can soar as well as any Boeing, can move us at our own per­sonal mach speeds, they are both ancient and new again. From dining room chairs set up by children (in my case, cousin James L. Warsher) to make a train through one’s living room, to the to the eye-​​popping look on my son Lukas’ face as the Cal­i­fornia Zephyr approached the Mar­tinez Amtrak Station, stopping to pick up his sister on her way to college; trains are a very sin­gular means of trans­portation. They can take us to some­place or back to another. We don’t even have to have a ticket; all that’s nec­essary is to hear or read those fab­ulous words,  All Aboard.…


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