This blog sometimes goes off the rails, but I’d like to stay within them this week by offering a post about…trains.
Yes, trains have been a memorable part of various novels — maybe even more so than planes, buses, and other forms of mass transit (which, for churchgoers, can include any way you travel to Sunday mass).
There’s something sort of romantic about rail travel, even though trains (especially in the underfunded-mass-transit United States) are often rather unromantic. Other potential dramatic elements: the many-hours length of some train rides, strangers sitting near each other, long corridors, dining cars, station stops, sleeping berths, etc. And of course trains take characters to other locales — temporarily or permanently. So, with all the above, there’s plenty of time and places for great, good, bad, and awful things to happen.
Famous novels with a railway milieu? Of course, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, whose title says it all; and Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, in which a man suggests to another man that they “trade” murders. Both made into memorable, well-known movies.
Somewhat less known, but perhaps the quintessential railway novel, is The Beast in Man. The train is practically a living character as its engine driver and other characters play out Emile Zola’s riveting tale of romance and violence — including an astonishing depiction of a train “accident” caused by sabotaged tracks. Obviously, 19th-century novels such as Zola’s were written pre-airplane and pre-car (or in the very early years of cars), so trains were a much more prominent travel option — in real life and novels.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake contains a horrific train accident in the father’s past — a significant moment that impacts the novel’s present.
Speaking of the present, I’m currently reading Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, in which we learn a lot about the protagonist in the novel’s first chapter as he rides a train, interacts with passengers and the porter, and uneasily dreams in a sleeping berth.
Then we of course have the Hogwarts Express in J.K. Rowling’s seven Harry Potter books. Harry, Hermione, and Ron first meet on that train, and many other things happen there as well. In the subsequent play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, there’s a pivotal Hogwarts Express scene involving the sons of Harry and Draco Malfoy.
On the subject of plays, the excellent On the Twentieth Century by Betty Comden and others is set on a train. Part musical, part drama, part screwball comedy, part farce.
And speaking of pivotal, there are several important rail scenes in Darryl Brock’s novel If I Never Get Back — including one in which the 20th-century protagonist goes back in time to the 19th century, and another in which that protagonist meets Mark Twain in a train-car corridor.
One obviously can’t forget Holocaust-novel scenes on or near the horrific Nazi death trains, such as a shocking/heart-wrenching moment in the William Styron-authored Sophie’s Choice.
And Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s description of the corpse train of murdered on-strike workers in One Hundred Years of Solitude is shattering.
One of the iconic rail scenes in literature involves the train-related fate of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina character.
Then there are subways. One gripping, suicidal, New York City-set underground event occurs in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novel Gone Tomorrow.
I see I’ve described a lot of bad things happening on trains. But some fictional works do offer positive tales of things like falling in love on the rails.
Novels can “take you places,” and trains help readers do that.
What are some of your favorite fictional works with train elements?
My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, which comically previews Election Day, is here.