On the Blue Comet, by Rosemary Wells (2010, Candlewick, middle grade, 329 pages)
Oscar and his dad, a John Deere tractor salesman, have a comfortable life together back in the late 1920s in Cairo, Illinois. Together they've filled the basement of their home with a model train layout that both of them love--Oscar especially enjoys squinching down to peer inside the trains, imagining himself on board.
Then the stock market crashes, and no-one's buying tractors anymore. Oscar's dad heads west to look for work, and their house, and (heartbreakingly for Oscar) all the trains, must be sold. Living with his aunt, and having to eat her casseroles, is very hard for Oscar, but some comfort comes in the regular visits of an out-of-work history teacher, who drops by when the aunt is off in the afternoons giving music and elocution lessons. This gentleman just happens to have been a theoretical math whizz--not only does he help Oscar with his math homework, but (among other conversations, including the best way to memorize poetry) he explains that time travel is theoretically possible.
Eventually the teacher gets a job as a night watchman in the biggest bank in town, which just happens to have a superb model train layout on display for the holidays....and so it's natural that Oscar should drop by to visit his friend, and the trains. But one night, armed bank robbers break in. Oscar's friend is shot, and to save himself, Oscar jumps...into the model train layout. And so a fantastical rail journey through time begins.
Oscar finds himself on a train headed out to his dad in California. But when he arrives, he somehow pushes through a barrier in time, and finds himself ten years older. WW II has broken out, and Oscar's in danger of being drafted--even though he still is eleven inside. Fortunately he made friends, back on the train when he was eleven, with a young man who's destined to become a movie star; ten years later, that friendship gets him inside Joan Collins (!) house (she has a lovely train layout), where he escapes army recruits by diving into trains again...back into the past.
He's still not home, though, and his last adventure, in the company of another magically train jumping girl in 1925, is his strangest yet....
This is a beautiful book, both physically--there are full color illustrations that are beautifully retro--and content-wise. It's the sort of story that combines lots of feeling--the emotions that tug on the heart--with an exciting adventure. Oscar's reactions rang true for me throughout, without being overdone, and the historical aspects of the book were fascinating (I love learning history through historical fiction, and if I were teaching a class on the Great Depression, I'd assign this book). And I never once had any quibbles with the writing--in particular, I thought Wells did a lovely job with Oscar's narration of the story--the short, simple sentences are spot on. In short, it's a great book.
I think, though, that this might be one that appeals even more to the grown-up fan of children's fantasy then to kids themselves, mainly because it takes a while for the Adventure to get going, and because adults, with their (presumably) greater knowledge of history and the culture of the 1920s-40s, might more easily appreciate the details of Oscar's life. If I were giving this as a Christmas present, I'd look in particular for the parent who plays trains with his or her son! The train obsessed kid is, of course, another fine target audience.
Timeslip-wise, the possibility of time travel is sketched early in the book, at a theoretical level, and then Wells leaves it just to happen, without trying to Explain. This is perhaps a wise decision, as it allows the story to flow without potentially awkward attempts to make it Reasonable, but, on the other hand, when a second child is able to magically jump the rails, it becomes possibly too inexplicable for the more logically oriented reader.
Other reviews at Ms. Yingling Reads, and at You Know, for Kids