Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Riding the Rails: Locomotive by Brian Floca

made for crossing the country,
a new road of rails
made for people to ride.

It was built "with a grunt and a heave and a swing, the ring of hammers on spikes." The Transcontinental Railroad, linking the middle of the United States with its western coast, was begun under President Abraham Lincoln, a tremendous vote of confidence for the survival of a divided country and the hope for its geographical union.

When it was done, it was a shining road for people to reach the Pacific Coast lands, once a long slog by covered wagon or a perilous voyage around Cape Horn, now possible with what seemed wondrous speed, a trip of mere days.

Brian Floca's 2014 Caldecott Medal book, Locomotive (Caldecott Medal Book) (Atheneum Books, 2013) puts a family, mother, boy, and girl, into a frame story of the first passenger run on that train, from Omaha to San Francisco, where Papa awaits them. In his meticulous, award-winning artwork, Floca takes the reader along, riding those rails, across the wide high plains where at first telegraph lines zing by and later where antelopes race the train, where the tracks trace their way between mountain ranges on each side. Then they cross the desert where wagon wheels and oxen skulls tell the tale of those who failed the trip, until at last they begin the long climb--clickety clack, clickety clack, c-l-i-c-k-e-t-y c--l--a--c--k,--up the slopes of the Sierras, rickety rack rickety rack across scary wooden trestles over deeper and deeper gorges, burrowing into tunnels showing the hand-hewn marks of their hammers and drills, and at last roaring, twisting, down the mountains to their final stop.

Down, down, past orchards and towns,
down to stop at the depot--
Here, where you needed to go,
where where you need to be...

Brian Floca took two prizes for this book, the Caldecott Award for the best-illustrated book of the year, but also the Robert Sibert Honor Medal for excellence in non-fiction writing for young people. Into that story of a family united he includes, in remarkable blank verse, the story of the steel-driving builders, the railroad workers--engineer, firemen, brakemen, conductors aboard, and workers along the route at the water stations and fueling stations and the depot station cooks, where the dubious children contemplate a menu of buffalo steaks, antelope chops, and "chicken" which is likely prairie dog, even the newsboys who come aboard to keep the weary riders amused with the local papers. As he did in his epic book, Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11, (Richard Jackson Books (Atheneum Hardcover)) Floca gives equal attention to the history and geography of the trip as well as its hardware, showing landmarks such as Castle Rock, the 1000 Mile Tree, and Pulpit Rock, and closeup looks at the tickets, the gauges and levers and firebox inside the engineer's cabin, as well as such touches as a view of the mobile toilet (don't flush unless the train is rolling) and the coal stove in the corner of each passenger car. Floca's opening and final endpapers are works of art themselves, especially the meticulous cutaway drawings of the engine itself at the back.

Floca's narrative is lively, rhythmic, and absorbing, mixing sibilant syllables--"Now the train travels trestles," and "through shodowy sheds, long and dark"--and not sparing the delicious onomatopoeia of train sounds--"HUFF HUFF," "BANG," "BOOM," "HISS," "CLICK AND CLACK" and "CHUG CHUGGA CHUG." The whole book is a masterpiece of fine storytelling, descriptive language and detailed illustration which tells the remarkable story of how the transcontinental railroad finally linked the whole land into one country. Floca's iconic final illustration shows the family walking away, hand in hand, while the boy salutes the engineer and his train with a wave of his hat. As The New York Times says "He's a brilliant, exacting draftsman; he also knows how to give his pictures a cinematic energy, especially in the way he "cuts" from page to pageā€¦"

Now the country's far corners
have been pulled together...
by the locomotive.

On the Pacific, by that new sea,
you have found a place to call home.

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