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Ride the rails in a good book

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Kitchigami Regional Library

The history of Brainerd and the surrounding communities is inextricably tied to two physical elements: The Mississippi River and the railroad.

The Brainerd Public Library is celebrating the railroading history of Brainerd with a free symposium: The “Railroad Roundhouse” on Sept. 15 at the Northern Pacific Industrial Center. Among the speakers will be John Luecke, who will discuss the Northern Pacific Shops and their history, the tie plant and the famous bridge collapse. Luecke has written or co-authored 11 railroad books, including “The Northern Pacific in Minnesota.”  Jeremy Jackson and Douglas Birk will present their recent research on local railroads including, the brickyard spur, the Brainerd and Northern Minnesota Railway, the Northeast Brainerd railroad trestle over the Mississippi River, the lumberyard and much more. 

Jackson and Birk have been compiling their discoveries into a forthcoming book, so stay tuned for more information on what is sure to be a fascinating look at Brainerd history.

Pre-registration is required for the “Railroad Roundhouse” event.  Call the library at 829-5574 for more information.

We rarely use trains for human transport in this day and age, so the very idea of train travel and life on the rails has become rather hazy and romanticized. Take a look at the following books, which will appeal to novices and rail enthusiasts alike.

A good place to start for beginning enthusiasts is “Short Lines: a Collection of Classic American Railroad Stories” edited by Rob Johnson. You will find many familiar authors here, such as Thomas Wolfe, O. Henry, Jack London and Christopher Morley. Each writer brings his own unique take on railroad life and train travel.

One novel that stands out among the rest in portraying the hard life of a railroad worker is “The Boomer: A Story of the Rails” by Harry Bedwell. Eddie Sand is a “boomer,” a worker that travels from boom town to boom town, to make a living as a telegraph operator. In his journeys, Sand meets characters of all kinds, and takes great joy in wandering and never being held down by domestic life. “Boomer” is considered to be one of the most factually accurate fictional portrayals of railroad life during the great train era.

“Murder on the Orient Express” by Agatha Christie is a Hercule Poirot mystery, taking place on his trip back to Paris from Constantinople (now Istanbul) on the famous railway. There’s something entertaining and satisfying about the fact that Agatha Christie’s sleuths are always conveniently located in the vicinity of all kinds of sophisticated murder plots. When written well (and Agatha is nothing if not an excellent writer), such a seeming cliché can create tension at the beginning of a novel, and draw the reader into the scene. You know that someone near Poirot or Miss Marple is going to be killed by another person in their company, but you won’t know who until it is revealed to you. The Orient Express is, of course, one of the best known railway lines to have ever existed, famous for its luxury and speed. The full Paris-Istanbul route was discontinued in 1977, and the remainder of the line ceased operation in 2009, so sadly the only way we can experience the Orient Express is through books and film. “Murder on the Orient Express” is a good start.

Jacob Janowski, the protagonist of the novel “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen, had an early life of promise as a student of veterinary medicine at Cornell University in the 1930s. Great tragedy strikes, however, and Jacob is left adrift until he jumps on a train that happens to belong to the “Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth,” a traveling circus. There he meets the beautiful Marlena, who performs with the horses, and her cruel and abusive husband August, the head animal trainer. When his veterinary training is discovered, Jacob is hired to care for the circus animals. Jacob quickly falls in love with Marlena, but their relationship threatens to overturn the delicate balance of the entire circus. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, I highly recommend reading the book before you do.

Robert Grainier is a fish out of water, dealing with technology that advances so quickly that most cannot keep up. In Denis Johnson’s novella “Train Dreams,” he goes about his days in the first half of the 20th century as a railroad crewman in the Pacific Northwest, filling various jobs and living in a cabin in the mountains. The compact tale was originally published in a collection of short stories, and when it was published on its own last year, it became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Johnson’s prose carries the stark physical and emotional landscape to new heights, revealing the life of an ordinary man during a time of great upheaval.

Paul Theroux begins his travelogue “The Great Railway Bazaar” with this evocative sentence: “Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.” As a young man he decided to travel across Europe and Western Asia by train for four months. In his book he relays the remarkable, and sometimes rather frank, discussions he has with people from all walks of life and cultural backgrounds.

For the children in your life, there are some classics that I highly recommend. Chief among train-themed picture books is “The Polar Express” by Chris Van Allsburg. The illustrations in this book are simply astonishing. For kids reading on their own, the “Boxcar Children” series by Gertrude Chandler Warner is full of adventure, and a young reader is sure to identify with one of the Alden siblings. Although they are not a major part of the storyline as far as number of pages they fill, the scenes on the Hogwarts Express in the “Harry Potter” series by J.K. Rowling are so memorable and crucial to the setting up of the plot of each book that I must mention them. The beginning moments of the friendship between Harry and Ron in their very first trip aboard the train in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” will warm the heart of child and adult alike.

If you find yourself wanting more great train tales, I have a full and varied list available at the library.  Be sure to join us for the “Railroad Roundhouse” for an afternoon of fascinating history and camaraderie.

LAUREL M. HALL is the senior outreach coordinator for Kitchigami Regional Library System.

Denton (Denny) Newman Jr.
I've worked at the Brainerd Dispatch with various duties since Dec. 7, 1983. Starting off as an Ad Designer and currently Director of Audience Development. The Dispatch has been an interesting and challenging place to work. I'm fortunate to have made many friends, both co-workers and customers.
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