Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Book Review: When the Whistle Blows

First, a little background:

I had a pleasant surprise last month when a visitor to this blog mentioned that her family was from Rowlesburg, West Virginia. When I visited her website, I discovered that she'd written a book that is scheduled for release this June. Further conversation revealed the book was set in Rowlesburg, and that author Fran Cannon Slayton was scheduled to visit my library in June. The Internet world is really a very small place, it seems. Or perhaps this is just further evidence that in West Virginia, there are not six degrees of separation--there are two.

Last Spring I had the opportunity to visit Rowlesburg, West Virginia for a storytelling performance. The town was celebrating its anniversary. I had wanted to visit this little community ever finding it mentioned as the home of an ancestor in my family's genealogy book. Although I never learned whether or not this relative--a doctor, apparently--married or had children, I liked to think of him as my claim to West Virginia-hood. (If you're not born here, it takes many years to be able to claim your statehood--even generations, I think).

Fran sent me a review copy of her book, and this weekend I sat down by the fire to read it. I didn't get up until the last page. The story is the kind that pulls you into the place and the people. I didn't want to leave, even at the end of the book.

Now, the review:

(The entrance to an old school in Rowlesburg--perhaps the scene of the first-day-of-buck-season revolt?)

Set in Rowlesburg during the days of World War II when the railroads still drove the town's economy, When the Whistle Blows by Fran Cannon Slayton chronicles the life of Jimmy Cannon, his family and friends from 1943 until 1949. Each episode occurs on a specific date: Halloween, or All Hallow's Eve as Jimmy's parents call it. It is not just a day for tricks and treats for Jimmy's family, though--it is also his father's birthday.

As the story begins, Jimmy is about 13 years old and not happy to be in school. He'd rather be doing anything else. He wants to be a railroad man, just like his father and older brother. What 12-year-old boy wouldn't? Each year Jimmy's narrator voice matures. Boyish pranks gradually become life lessons, and during a football season in his sophomore year Jimmy begins to see his aging father's vulnerability and also his wisdom. The coming of the diesel age marks a turning point not only for Jimmy's family but for the town itself as a way of life slowly becomes the way of the past and the future looms uncertainly for those who cling to the place they call home.

Within Jimmy's story is the story of the Society, an organization that includes only men. The Society is a dark thread in the fabric of the town, and Jimmy is horrified when he learns its rituals. As he grows up he learns to accept and eventually understand and embrace the group's unusual mission.

When the Whistle Blows by Fran Cannon Slayton is a compelling story with a strong voice that will appeal to readers of all ages. Most especially it is that rarity in the book world, a story that will appeal to boys. Young male audiences can be difficult to attract, but Slayton's book will pull them in like such classic works as Where the Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller, and Holes. It is a coming-of-age story not just for Jimmy, but also for Rowlesburg and its people. It is a chapter of West Virginia history often overlooked, but in her first book Slayton has managed to bring the story of a small Appalachian railroad town to full-blooded, full-throated, colorful life.

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