The Train of Small Mercies
The year is 1968, and Americans are wondering what has gone wrong with their country; the war in Vietnam rages on, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has been murdered, riots plague Washington, D.C. and in June, Senator Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy is assassinated. It is against this backdrop that Rowell sets his first novel, centering on June 8, the day the senator’s body is transported by train from New York, to the nation’s capital and on to interment at Arlington National Cemetery, close by the grave of his brother, President John F. Kennedy.
Although there are fascinating details about the funeral train’s procession — two people were killed by another train while waiting along the tracks for the funeral train — the train serves only as a device to link together the stories of six different characters who never interact with each other.
Three of these stories, in particular, form the bulk of the novel. Jamie is a young, crippled Vietnam vet trying to deal with the loss of a leg. Maeve, an Irish immigrant, sees her potential job as a nanny to Robert Kennedy’s family disappearing with his death. A 19-year-old African-American youth with the punning name of Lionel serves his first day as a railroad porter aboard the funeral train. Only the last two characters have any connection with Kennedy and those are tenuous at best.
While the characters are all well-drawn, their stories are all essentially unfinished. They may be intended as a metaphor for the unfinished business of the murdered senator, but the reader wishes that there were some closure for at least some of them.