Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A Journey Across America

The Christmas Train by David Baldacci (Pan Books 2002, 260p)

I’ve been reading The Christmas Train and got engrossed in the route taken by Tom Langdon as he travelled by train from Washington DC across America to Los Angeles. I’ve had to look at Google Maps and Google Earth, Wikipedia and other internet sites in my quest to learn more about the places the train journey passed through. Knowing next to nothing about the geography of the USA I’ve found this a fascinating exercise.

I wouldn’t have read this book at all if Sam at The Life and Times of Me hadn’t mentioned it in her comment on my post on Christmas Books. I saw the book in my local library and I nearly didn’t pick it up, as the cover of the book didn’t attract me at all. However, the cover does not reflect the story. It’s not about a toy train in one of those snow shaker globes – the ones with a picture and liquid inside that you shake to start the snow particles falling. It is about a real train and real snow at Christmas time. Basically it’s a love story, Tom, a world-weary journalist is travelling from Washington DC to spend Christmas with his girlfriend who lives in Los Angeles. It’s also a detective story as there is a thief on the train and I didn’t work out the thief’s identity at all, so that was a surprise. Added to that are the stories of the staff and other passengers, including Eleanor, the long-lost love of Tom’s life, and her employer, Max a movie director – what is the real reason they are travelling by train, after all Max has his own private jet?

The book is easy to read but what really interested me were the journey and some references that are really extra to the plot. First the references – Mark Twain and The Cumberland Gap. Tom has decided to use the time on the train to write a story about the journey, inspired by the fact that Sam Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain had married one of his ancestors. There was a legend that Twain had never published the story of his transcontinental railroad trip taken at Christmas time during the latter part of his life and Tom’s father had asked him to finish the story Twain had never published. Tom refers to Twain’s Innocents Abroad, an account of a five-month journey on a steam ship to Europe and the Holy Land, as “one of the funniest, most irreverent travel books ever written.” I’d like to read that book. I’ve already got Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn lined up to read this year, so now I’m looking out for Innocents Abroad, Life on the Mississippi and The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg as well.

The Cumberland Gap I knew of before reading this book is the song by Lonnie Donegan from the late 1950s and I’d never realised that it referred to a gap in the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee, a natural breach in the mountains on the route to the Plains and the Pacific; an ancient path widened by Daniel Boone to take wagons into the western frontiers. Reading the book I had the words of the song going through my head over and over again – I suppose that’s not the effect that David Baldacci would have expected from his readers, but I enjoyed it.


Photo of Cumberland Gap licensed under the Creative Commons License

I think David Baldacci must like Mark Twain, Hitchcock films maybe (North by Northwest starring Cary Grant gets a mention), and above all I think he must like trains. He obviously has researched the passenger train service, Amtrak – the Capitol Line from Washington D C to Chicago and then the Southwest Chief on to Los Angeles. I got to know a bit about the places the trains either stopped at or went by - Rockville, Maryland where F Scott Fitzgerald is buried, Harper’s Ferry West where John Brown made his raid on the federal army before the Civil War started – another song going through my head – “John Brown’s body lies a’mouldering in the grave …”, Cumberland Gap, over the Mississippi – another song in my head, this time Paul Robeson’s “Ol Man River”; Kansas City and Dodge City - thinking of outlaws, Gunsmoke and High Noon. On the train goes through the Raton Pass, Apache Canyon (more western films pop into my head), Las Vegas in New Mexico, La Junta and Pike’s Peak in Colorado and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Albuquerque (visions of the Rio Grande) and Gallup before reaching Los Angeles. The climax comes as the train is halted in its tracks with no way back to Chicago or forward to Los Angeles and they need a miracle to survive.

I enjoyed this book on several levels. I liked the story; it’s an entertaining easy read with a few surprises along the way. I liked the characters, the snapshot insights into the lives of a variety of people and the passing scenery of the numerous places on the journey. David Baldacci has written numerous books, so there are plenty more of his for me to read and I’ll be looking out for them.

4 comments:

Kay said...

I read this book several years ago and really enjoyed it as well. I have travelled some by Amtrak and it is quite an experience.

Nan - said...

I loved this review. It was like taking a little trip. And I don't know if it would surprise you to know that a lot of us who live here don't know much about the country geographically. Sometimes we have been on the phone with a business employee who had never heard of our state. And I certainly am vague when it comes to where all the states are. And this probably won't surprise you - we have an old classroom map of England hanging up, but not one of the US. :<) I did read the book five years ago, and gave it a B (back when I graded).

BooksPlease said...

Kay, I looked up Amtrak on Wikipedia - it does look amazing. The only time I use the train these days is to go into London and that's on a small train, until you get there of course, then it's the Underground, which I don't like.

Nan, I am thinking of printing off a map showing the States. As I read blogs I wonder where everyone is and I'm reading more books with such tantalising glimpses of America that I want to locate it all. At the moment in the book I'm reading the main character has moved from Los Angeles to Alliance in Nebraska, which sounds such a freezing cold snowy place!

I can picture where places are in my head in Britain - not all of them of course, but I know vaguely which area to find them. Thinking about it a map of Britain would be good too.

Sam said...

Hi, Sam here! I am glad that you enjoyed the book, it really is quite an entertaining read isn't it. I have not read any of David Baldacci's other book (I don't think) and so I will have to try another one!