Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Review: When the Whistle Blows

Summary: Jimmy lives in Rowlesburg, West Virginia, during the 1940s. He does all the things boys do in the small mountain town: plays a mean game of football, pulls the unforgettable Halloween prank with his friends in “the Platoon,” and promises to head off into the woods on the first day of hunting season— no matter what. He also knows his father belongs to a secret society, and is determined to uncover the mysteries behind it! But it is a midnight encounter with a train that shows Jimmy the man his father really is.

Newcomer Fran Cannon Slayton’s powerful first novel captures the serendipity of boyhood by shining a spotlight on the peak adventures of Jimmy’s life. But at its heart, this is a story about a boy and his father in a time when trains reigned supreme. -- Philomel

When I first read the description for WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS by Fran Cannon Slayton, I thought it sounded like a wonderful book for young boys and girls. I am always a sucker for a good coming-of-age story, and I had a feeling that I was going to enjoy this one. I liked the premise that the book took place in a railroad town in the 1940s, and I thought the adventures of a young boy in rural West Virginia could make for a very entertaining novel.

To sum up my thoughts on WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS, I'd have to say that I was very impressed! The story captured my attention and held it throughout, and I also enjoyed Ms. Slayton's writing a great deal. WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS is Ms. Slayton's debut novel, and I think it's a terrific start! I loved the character of Jimmy and I thought his voice was just perfect (although I have to admit that I was a little surprised by how well a female author captured the essence of a teenage boy.) I definitely will be recommending this book to many people.

There are so many things about this novel that struck a chord with me that I'm not entirely sure where to start. I think one of the reasons that I enjoyed this novel so much is that I could relate to it. That might sound odd considering that the story is about a young boy living in the 1940s in a railroad town; however, my family comes from a rural coal mining town in western Pennsylvania. So many of the stories about the town and its people just reminded me of stories that I've heard from my grandparents and even great-grandparents. On a much larger level, I thought Jimmy's coming-of-age story had so many universal theme (such as handling change, facing the loss of loved ones and even learning how to make important decisions) that will resonate with almost every reader.

I also appreciated how Ms. Slayton chose to tell this story, and I'm pretty sure that's one of the reasons that I thought this book was so special. The narrator was Jimmy, a young boy who had a special attachment to the railroad in his hometown of Rowlesburg. His entire family worked for the railroad and he wanted to follow in his father's and brother's footsteps despite their warnings that the railroad business was dying. As a reader, I couldn't help but love Jimmy for his wonderful insights as well as his unique perspectives on his life. It didn't hurt that he also had a great sense of humor! I also liked that each chapter took place in consecutive years on All Hallow's Eve starting in 1943 when Jimmy was just a young boy and ending in 1949 when Jimmy was on the brink of manhood. I feel that the reader truly gets to see how Jimmy matures through the years when given just that one day snapshot in time.

At first, I thought WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS was geared towards middle grade readers, but after I finished this book I actually thought it would be better appreciated by a slightly older reader. That's not too say that middle graders won't like reading about the adventures of Jimmy, but this book really brought forth some very deep and thought-provoking themes that might be missed by the average middle grader. In fact, I think WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS is one of those children books that might best be appreciated by adults!

During the six years that are covered in this novel, so much change takes place not only for Jimmy and his family, but also the town of Rowlesburg and even the country as a whole. There are the typical things that the reader can expect to see in Jimmy's life such as experiences at work and school; however, there are also major issues such as the learning to deal with the loss of family members. The town had to deal with the decline of the railroad industry and ultimately the loss of many jobs; and the country had to deal with World War II and the changes that came about as a result of that. Change was a huge recurring theme throughout this novel.

One of my favorite things about this book was how the author handled the relationship between Jimmy and his father. Jimmy loved and respected his father, but I got the idea that he never really thought they were close. Jimmy didn't feel that he could ask questions or challenge his father; and he often times misunderstood his father's intentions. As the book progressed and Jimmy got older, he discovered more and more about the man who was his father. By the end of the book, Jimmy is a young man who realizes important things about not only his father but also himself.

While this book is technically fiction, it really read more like a non-fiction book to me. That's probably because the author based this book on stories that her father told her about her grandfather -- WP Cannon. There is additional information about the town, the railroad and especially the novel on the author's website.

WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS is currently on Indibound's Kids Next list for fall, ranked #6. School Library Journal also interviewed the author for their June issue -- the interview is available here if you'd like to read it. The Washington Post also reviewed it earlier in September. In addition to these reviews, you can check out this video clip with the author to get an even better understanding of this wonderful coming-of-age story:

Thanks to the author for sending me an ARC of her book.


bermudaonion said...

I love stories about father/son relationships. I think the relationship a boy has with his father can tell a lot about the kind of man he will become. This sounds like a wonderful book.

Beth F said...

Coming of age stories are favorite genre for me and I think there was a lot for kids to handle in the 40s. You've made this sound like a very appealing book.

Nicole said...

I love coming of age stories and stories exploring the father/son relationship. You really don't see as many stories involving the father and his kids. This one does sound rather intricate. I am always adjusting expectations on books for younger readers. Sometimes the age range isn't very accurate. Great review, as usual!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

This sounds wonderful. I love YA books that include the adults as much as it sounds like this one does!

writergal said...

Nice review. Sounds like an excellent book for younger readers. I'm intrigued by coming-of-age because sometimes it is just growing up and sometimes it is sexual/ losing "virginity." I prefer it to mean the former.

Sandee61 said...

Enjoyed the review and would love to read this book. Please enter my name in your giveaway. Thank you!