In a year when I have been just picky as hell about what I'm reading, DNFing things left and right, when the randomizer picked this one out for me, I was doubtful. Yes, I pick many of my reads via the randomizer. I own a lot of books. It's far more productive than me trying to, like, make a decision and stick with it.
Anyhow, The Train of Small Mercies was a LibraryThing Early Reviewers book that has turned into a "years later" reviewers book on my shelves. When I glanced through the reviews, I thought it would get its 50 pages and then land on the DNF pile in the company of many books I thought I'd like a lot more, but it defied my expectations and started a streak of books I've actually finished. Mind you, I am not sure how this happened. Train definitely is just the plotless wonder that all the naysayers described, not exactly the book you hunt down when you're in a reading slump, but something about it definitely appealed.
First, there's Lionel Chase, following in his father's footsteps as a porter for Penn Central. This day, of all days, is his first day on the job. In New Jersey, 10-year-old Michael spends the day playing with his friends and planning to see the train from the treetops while trying to forget the trauma of being a casualty of his parents' divorce. In Maryland, the West family, whose son Jamie has returned from Vietnam missing a leg, waits for the train and also for the reporter coming to interview Jamie about his experience in Vietnam. In Delaware, Edwin and Lolly turn the day into a party of sorts, celebrating their newly purchased pool with friends as a distraction from their struggles with infertility. In Pennsylvania, disappointed housewife Delores evades her husband's political disapproval by dragging her youngest daughter Rebecca along on a stealth trip to see the train with a series of lies that may just end in tragedy. In Washington, DC itself, Maeve, a prospective nanny for the Kennedy family waits for the train's arrival, realizing her job prospects have changed but still hoping for a new start.
Each of these narrative strands are touched upon in brief chapters labeled with the state in which they take place. There is little to connect each to the others except for the expectation of the train itself and a pervasive sense of Americana. In a beautiful early summer day shot through with the grief of the funeral train, Rowell draws out a little piece of each ordinary American's story. Each story has its own heartbreak to go with the larger heartbreak of a nation, and each story seems, improbably, to hold the promise of better days for these Americans whose private griefs are mingled with the somberness of the day. Somehow, though it doesn't always make sense and the bands of connection are thin, at best, Rowell manages to use these six stories to convey the feeling of a nation in flux, filled with people who, even after being knocked down, somehow dust themselves off and carry on.
Upon turning the last page, I had to agree with other reviewers that I hadn't managed to get my hands around the plot, if there was one, so I definitely don't think this book is for everyone. That said, I don't think it necessarily needed a plot. The compelling authenticity of the characters, the vivid snapshots of their lives, and the overarching connection of the funeral train itself were more than enough to create the feeling of sadness with the promise of hope for redemption that made this book an unexpectedly touching novel that has stuck with me.