When the Whistle Blows, by Fran Cannon Slayton

Of all the books that I read for the 48 Hour Reading Challenge last weekend, When the Whistle Blows, by Fran Cannon Slayton (Penguin, June 2009, 162pp), was the only one that made me cry.

Jimmy is the third, and youngest, son of a railway man in a small West Virginia town. It's the 1940s, and Jimmy is fascinated by the steam trains that roll through daily, hoping rides on them even though that's a dangerous business: "...there's always a right decent change of getting killed. Second, and about ten thousand times worse, my Dad might find out" (page 1). Jimmy wants to be a railwayman himself someday, but his father is against it, saying that the days of the steam train are numbered. The trains have a big part in the story--they are the lifeblood of the town, bringing work, and hope, and sometimes tragedy. They are the reason why Jimmy lives where he does.

The book follows Jimmy as he grows up, from 1943 (when he's about 11) to 1949, with the story of what happened to him on the same day of each year--the day before Halloween, the day of his father's birthday. The stories tell of small town boy things, like football (one of the most interesting fictional football games I've read about), mischief in spooky graveyard, and the start of hunting season, and at first they seem independent of each other--a series of vignettes of West Virginia life long ago. But as one reads, the story arc become clear--a boy finding out who his father is, and, in the process, learning about himself and what his place in the world might be.

As the reader is learning this, so is Jimmy. As he grows up, he begins to think about his father more, allowing Slayton to tenderly and deftly create an unforgettable portrait of father and son. Here's one of my favorite bits (although so as to not type a whole page and a half, I left some paragraphs out...)

"Happy birthday, Dad."

He turns around and looks at me. The deep creases around his eyes soften for a moment. He snorts again."

"Understanding what his snorts mean has always been a [hard] question to figure. When I was younger, I always thought he snorted at me because I was bugging him. But lately I've realized that he doesn't just snort when he's bothered. Heck, he snorts all the time. He snorted at me last year when I finally got up the courage to tell him how bad I wanted to quite school and go to work on the railroad. I thought he was liable to kill me after that snort. But then the next semester when I showed him a report card full of A's and B's- even in Mr. Kaylor's chemistry class-he snorted the exact same way. "

It was when he snorted at the news that Mike and Viv were getting married that I finally figured out you couldn't tell what the heck my father was feeling from his snort. It just tells you that he's feeling something. I figure it's kind of like the whistle on an old Mallet engine: if you hear it, you know a train is coming" (pp 109-110).

When the Whistle Blows manages to be both exciting, and unrushed and thoughtful. It is a moving story, beautifully written. It might well become a classic coming of age story, capturing as it does a time and place long gone, while dealing in an engrossing way with the classic theme of growing up.

I almost want to recommend this book as a father's day gift, because it is such a lovely portrayal of a father/son relationship. But, like I said, it made me cry, so read it first, just in case it wouldn't be quite the thing.

Here are other reviews, at Jen Robinson's Book Page, 100 Scope Notes, and Becky's Book Reviews.

(source of book: arc from the author)


  1. This sounds so characteristic of the dry "hmph" of my own father that it made me chuckle. I do believe my father has only one meaning for that sound, but it sounds like this novel has awesome character development and a really good father/child relationship development. That's heartening.

  2. Slayton touched on small town issues and the effects of mass layoffs in smaller communities. Though the book takes place in the 40's those issues are still pertinent in today's economy. She interwove her family history into this book...that is by far my favorite aspect.

  3. Indeed, Brimful, those are two aspects of the book that add greatly to it. I was so caught up in the characters' relationships that I overlooked them, so thanks for bringing them up!


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