What IF? On the Blue Comet by Rosemary Wells
Across from me in his seat, Dutch was scanning the paper again. He had it open to the Christmas Eve massacre story. Then it came to me. I glanced leftward to the two ladies in the seats beside us. They were deep in face-to-face conversation. The last time I saw them, they had been thumb-size and made of tin. So had Dutch. He was the metal man with the tin glasses reading his newspaper. And I was the tin boy on the opposite seat, riding around and around forever, staring out the window of the Golden State streamliner at another great big Oscar who might, this very minute, be peering in at me.
I had jumped onto a toy train and escaped into some kind of time and space neverland.
Rosemary Wells, famed for her Max & Ruby toddler tales, has here herself made a huge jump into another literary genre altogether--the young adult time travel fantasy, with great success.
It's 1931. Oscar and his widowed father live happily enough in their little house in Cairo, Illinois, their retreat from fifth-grade arithmetic and trying to sell John Deere tractors to hard-pressed farmers. Oscar and his dad share a love for their elaborate Lionel train layout in the basement and spend most nights down there together. But it all ends when his dad loses his job and their house and is forced to sell their beloved Lionel trains to town banker, Mr. Pettishanks. Oscar is reluctantly taken in by his stoic, penurious Aunt Carmen, who ekes out her living teaching piano and declamation to the town's richest children, while his father tries to find a new life for them in California.
There is no joy in Aunt Carmen's niggardly rules and lima bean and canned cod-cheek casseroles, and Oscar finds brief relief in a chance meeting with Mr. Applegate, a vagrant ex-teacher who secretly coaches him in math, tells him about Einstein's theory of time, and teaches him his private code for memorizing Kipling's "If," a skill which happens to endear him to Mr. Pettishanks, who is duly moved to allow Oscar occasional visits to his former trains on display downtown in the bank.
There after hours on Christmas Eve, the now watchman Mr. Applegate lets Oscar in to run the trains, and when two robbers force their way in and fire their guns at them, Oscar follows Mr. Applegate's last words, "Jump, Oscar!" and leaps into the train layout. When he comes to his senses, he finds himself amazingly inside the Lionel scene, now full-sized and as real as he is, with the train to Chicago just pulling into the station. Still fearful, Oscar bolts onto the train and into a time travel adventures which takes him to Los Angeles in 1941, back east to New York City before the Crash in 1926, and eventually back to his own time with his life forever changed.
Along the way Wells has her resilient eleven-year-old hero meet up with many celebrities of that time and future times, including Ronald Reagan, as the cheerful recent college graduate "Dutch" who travels with him to Hollywood, Alfred Hitchcock, intrigued by the bank robbery mystery, and Joan Crawford, whose own elaborate train layout helps Oscar, now 21 and reunited with his older (and balder) father, escape a team of draft-dodger hunters by jumping onto a train to the New York City of 1926.
On that train is a willful ten-year-old runaway rich girl, Claire, who takes Oscar, now six years old, back to her wealthy life with her stockbroker father, where the young Oscar tries to warn a meeting of financiers--including Joseph Kennedy, Sr., accompanied by his young son Jack--of the coming stock market collapse three years in the future. And when Claire's father decides to pack Oscar off to an orphanage, Oscar jumps once more, this time into Claire's train layout which takes him back toward Cairo, again eleven years old but this time with knowledge that will enable him and his father (now with his youthful full head of hair temporarily restored) to have a new and better life together.
It's an absorbing read, with plenty of adventure and a delightful mix of history thrown in, in a real change of pace for the versatile Wells in her latest, On the Blue Comet, 2010. Her publisher, Candlewick Press, has gone all out in this beautiful edition, complete with creamy page stock and charmingly nostalgic, absolutely gorgeous illustrations by the prodigiously talented Bagram Iboutalline who adds much to a tale in which Lionel trains become the means and metaphor for Einstein-inspired time travel.
As School Library Journal says, "The sheer beauty of this winning book will attract many readers; the magic of the story and its likable protagonist will hook them."