Ed Collier (Collie for short) is on a mission. The year is 1934, and a series of tragedies has pushed Ed's family to the brink. First his father died in a lumber accident; then his mother lost her job in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash; finally, Collie's older brother, Little Bill, turned to drink and violence before leaving home and devastating their mother. The family's breaking like a shattered plate, his mother despairs.
Determined to mend the broken pieces, Collie, like so many other young men and boys during the Depression, hits the rails to try to find his older brother and bring him back home to Wisconsin. At first, Collie jumps freight trains under the tutelage of a veteran train jumper known as Scarecrow. Although Scarecrow teaches Collie the best techniques for hopping a boxcar and shows him the ropes at the hobo camps (or jungles ), he also reveals himself to be a racist when a young black boy, Ike, winds up in their car. Following their detention at a Christian mission, Collie develops a friendship with Ike, and the two remain loyal friends and fellow travelers as they ride across the country. The two have their share of missteps, and always barely stay one step ahead of the law, but they share unforgettable adventures that, as one kindly character tells the boys, they'll be able to tell their grandchildren about one day.
The Train Jumper has the flavor of old-time family stories passed down from one generation to another. In an author's note, Don Brown credits the most precious of gems, those who lived history with inspiring many of the anecdotes in its pages. The novel is full of authentic historical color, from mulligan stew and dust storms to tent revivals, minstrel shows and racial slurs. Thanks to these period details, Collie's larger-than-life adventures feel convincingly grounded in Depression-era realities. What's more, with its fast-paced narrative, adventure-laden scenes and suspenseful plot, The Train Jumper will move even reluctant readers along at a speed as breathlessly exhilarating as an express locomotive.
Norah Piehl is a writer and editor in the Boston area.