‘Compartment’-alizing With Trains in Literature

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.

A Transportation Compilation

It’s the holiday season, and that often means traveling in planes, trains, and automobiles — to reference the title of a 1987 movie.

Well, I once wrote about cars in literature, so I’ll focus this post on fiction’s planes and trains — and throw in a few buses, too!

Of course, lots of literature has characters taking incidental flights or railroad rides to get somewhere, but this piece will focus on plane or train appearances that are important to the story. And I’ll keep in mind that fiction published before a certain 1903 invention by the Wright Brothers featured more trains than planes. I wonder why? πŸ™‚

Emile Zola’s riveting 1890 novel The Beast in Man practically stars a train. Driving that majestic locomotive is troubled Jacques Lantier — whose train and life both end up crashing. Speaking of 19th-century literature, a train also plays a VERY major role in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

Tracks continued to appear in 20th- and 21st-century fiction. For instance, a train wreck in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake causes a survivor to name his son Gogol, because that’s who the father was reading when the accident occurred. Also, authorities covered up their massacre of many banana workers by secretly carrying the bodies away by rail and tossing them in the sea — a real-life 1928 atrocity devastatingly recounted in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. And it’s hard to forget Agatha Christie’s mystery classic Murder on the Orient Express.

On a less grisly note, the Hogwarts Express is a big player in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. That train takes students from London to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and it’s where Harry first meets his pals Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley — not to mention Draco Malfoy, the Slytherin boy with whom he’ll have many tangles over the course of seven books.

In Darryl Brock’s page-turning baseball novel If I Never Get Back, a train figures prominently when 20th-century protagonist Sam Fowler travels back in time to 1869. Later in the book, Sam meets Mark Twain on another train and then eventually takes a long, arduous 19th-century rail trip from Cincinnati to the West Coast. If only Sam could have flown…

Heck, if only the Bundren family could have flown when transporting the coffin of wife and mother Addie to her grave. But not having a harrowing land journey would have made for a much different As I Lay Dying, the tour de force novel by William Faulkner.

Which leads us to planes.

A past flight mishap in Alaska is one reason why the title character in Stanley Elkin’s The Rabbi of Lud doesn’t want to leave his New Jersey town despite the fact that it’s mostly “populated” by the buried dead (not Addie Bundren, though). Larry Darrell in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge seeks the meaning of life after being traumatized by his World War I pilot experiences. Wally Worthington’s military plane is shot down in John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, and his being injured and missing for a long time has a profound effect on the plot and other characters.

Then there’s Richard Matheson’s iconic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” story — perhaps best known as a Twilight Zone episode starring a pre-Star Trek William Shatner — that will make anyone terrified of looking out a plane window. And Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling’s brother Robert Serling wrote several novels with aviation themes, including The President’s Plane Is Missing and Stewardess.

Plane rides are also important in several Jack Reacher novels. Without Fail, for instance, has an airborne Reacher getting a chance to talk with America’s vice president-elect after Jack and others are assigned to protect him from very real assassination attempts.

Reacher and other forms of transportation? There’s a suicidal New York City subway scene in Gone Tomorrow you won’t soon forget. And Lee Child’s drifter protagonist has ridden quite a few buses — in 61 Hours, for instance. Which reminds me of John Steinbeck’s quirky novel The Wayward Bus.

Planes, trains, and buses of course also appear in many children’s books — such as Richard Scarry’s A Day at the Airport, The Little Engine That Could (of which the best-known version is by “Watty Piper”), The Railway Series (by Wilbert Awdry and Christopher Awdry) that stars Thomas the Tank Engine of later television fame, and The Magic School Bus books (by Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen) that also got the TV treatment.

Of course, one could emulate the great band Rush and fly without being on a plane, but I don’t recommend it without a good special-effects person. Watch this very ’80s video and see. πŸ™‚

What are you favorite fictional works featuring the transportation modes I mentioned?

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On Dec. 5, Brian Bess kindly posted a review (unsolicited!) of my 2012 memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional. As readers of this blog know, Brian frequently posts excellent comments here — and his book reviews are equally terrific!

I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.