I'm going to start with a disclaimer: Rosemary Well's On the Blue Comet is exactly the kind of book I loved as a child. It reminds of some of my favorites by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, which had an enchanting blend of realism and whimsy. But I also think that much about the book would be hard for modern children to understand.
Our protagonist, Oscar Ogilvie Junior, is obsessed by the world of
Lionel trains. Set at the beginnings of the Great Depression, the book
shows just how quickly a comfortable life in Cairo, Illinois, can go
wrong. Oscar's father loses both his job and their house and has to
sell their train collection. Then, Oscar is forced to live with his
exceedingly prim aunt and his obnoxious cousin while his father goes to
California to look for work. Oscar makes friends with Mr. Applegate, a
kind man who helps him understand his math assignments and who
introduces him to Einstein's theories of time and space. Up until about
page 100, this book reads just like a historical novel.
But then the magical begins to happen. During a traumatic incident,
Oscar is mysteriously transported into the train display, on his way to
California to join his father. He meets Dutch (who probably only the
adults will recognize as Ronald Reagan). Dutch helps him reach his
father by phone, but leaves Oscar at the station alone. Somehow, when
Oscar goes out to meet his father, he ages 10 years in the process.
The mysteries continue through Oscar meeting Alfred Hitchcock and his
mysterious Chinese housekeeper to him traveling yet again as an
11-year-old on a train to find Claire, a girl from pre-Crash New York
City. When he leaves the train with Claire in New York, he reverts to
the age he was in that year--5 years old. Eventually Claire helps get
Oscar home to his own time, with the ends of the story getting tied up.
Is the time travel believable? Well, that depends. I'm sure that if I had read this book when I was a kid, I would have had no problem with it. As an adult, I find it a tad less easy to suspend disbelief. :-) Children might have difficulty understanding why trains were so entrancing to Oscar, for one thing. Yet readers could learn a great deal about the early years of the Depression if they got some additional explanation. Plus, many of the issues ring true: for example, students could begin to see how the choices people make can shape how things turn out This book isn't a typical sci-fi novel, nor is it a typical historical novel. All of us probably know students who could benefit from stretching their appreciations of genres, and this book might be a good one to open them up to other possibilities.
Tags: "on the blue comet" "rosemary wells" fantasy trains "time travel"
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