Howard Bahr has made a name for himself in American literary circles with his three novels about the American Civil War. In Pelican Road he takes a change of direction, looking at the American railway and two particular trains travelling on Christmas Eve, 1940. It is, according to the publisher’s press release, a book examining ‘the greatest themes in literature: the tragic nobility of those attempting to overcome difficult situations through love, honour and sacrifice.’
It’s a beautifully written book, perhaps a little self-consciously literary in places, but forgivable in a writer who has such a feeling for the flow of words. We are allowed glimpses of many diverse characters and of what the journey means to them. These vignettes are held together by the stories of Artemus Kane, Frank Smith, and the group of railway men manning each train. Some of the stories are brutal, raw, and typically violent, but as for the characters’ ‘tragic nobility overcoming difficult situations through love, honour and sacrifice’? Well, I have to disagree there. These characters are merely human; not fatally flawed in a tragic situation, but not particularly good or bad either. They do their best. In fact, I felt this novel was traditionally American, almost with the sense of a Western in its ‘a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do’ theme. Bahr’s characters get on with life as best they may in a world gone mad.
If you like trains and railways, you’ll enjoy the book. If you like American literary writing, you’ll enjoy it as well. If you’re in search of an unusual historical novel to read, I highly recommend it. Don’t look for happy endings, though.