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Sat November 5, 2011

'Train Of Small Mercies': RFK's Last Journey Imagined

Originally published on Thu November 8, 2012 10:51 am

In the news business, time is marked by great events: the anniversaries of elections, wars, hit songs and the births and deaths of famous people.

But each of us also has a personal timeline by which we measure our life: the day we start our first job, fulfill a dream or glimpse history passing by, close enough to touch.

David Rowell's debut novel, The Train of Small Mercies, puts public and personal timelines alongside each other as he recounts June 8, 1968. That's the day a train made a slow, momentous journey from New York to Washington, D.C., to deliver the body of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy for burial beside his slain brother.

Millions of people lined the route. It was the dead middle of an earth-shaking year that had already seen mounting losses in Vietnam, an American president decline to run, a hero martyred when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, chaos, riots and songs. All of the characters in this novel are touched by the times, but also mark them in different, intimate ways.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

In the news business, we often mark time by great events: the anniversaries of elections, wars, hit songs, the births and deaths of famous people. But a lot of us also have personal timelines by which we measure our lives: the day we start our first job, fulfill a dream or glimpse history passing by close enough to touch.

David Rowell's debut novel, "The Train of Small Mercies," puts public and personal timelines alongside each other as he recounts June 8, 1968. The day a train made a slow, momentous journey from New York to Washington, D.C., to deliver the body of Senator Robert F. Kennedy for burial beside his slain brother.

Millions of people lined the route. It was the dead middle of an Earth-shaking year that had already seen mounting losses in Vietnam, an American president decline to run, the hero martyred when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated.

David Rowell, who's also an editor at the Washington Post magazine, joins us. Thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID ROWELL: Well, thanks very much.

SIMON: And how did you get the idea to put Robert Kennedy's funeral train in the middle of a novel?

ROWELL: Well, it was really this book of photographs called "RFK Funeral Train" by Paul Fusco. The idea was always that Paul, he was going to be there to shoot the burial at Arlington National Cemetery. And no one really knew what to expect between - from the time that the train left to the time that it got there.

But as soon as the train pulled out of Penn Station he looked out the window, and I think that he really knew instinctively that this was the story. Here was America in a time of incredible turmoil and pain and confusion. Here was America coming together literally side by side. And Fusco, he put his camera out the window pretty immediately, and he just snapped away.

And I've been looking at the book and the photographs for years and I really thought that I would turn to this book of photographs and try and write a fictional response to these characters that I had been looking at in the photographs for so long.

SIMON: Let's talk about some of your characters. You open with Jaime West, ex-GI who's lost a leg in Vietnam. He's come home. His local suburban newspaper is supposed to interview him on June 8th about his service and about his loss. But all the star reporters are covering the funeral, so they send a cub reporter. And turns out they went to high school and has some connection with each other.

ROWELL: Right. There was a picture in Paul Fusco's book where a young man is holding a crutch up in the air. And that picture really grabbed me. And I thought about the war during that time. And I imagined a young man who had come home without a leg, trying to figure out what his life was going to be like going forward and waiting in his backyard.

And just the thought about talking about his life, but also not really wanting to talk about what had happened. And here is this young reporter trying to do the best job that he could. And just with the backdrop of the Kennedy train coming and just wondering what dynamics might take shape there.

SIMON: You also have a character who's a young man who wakes up that June 8th in New York. He's also 19. He's starting his first day working as a Pullman porter, and it happens to be on Robert F. Kennedy's funeral train.

ROWELL: The reason I wanted that character was because I wanted - see, with all these characters they would only be able to witness what was happening right around them. And I wanted to find a way in which the full scope of Paul Fusco's book could come through.

And I thought, well, the only way I can do that is to have a character on the train, so that he can look out the window as they go state by state. And just see these, you know, these women who fall to their knees when the train passes, these people who have these handwritten signs that say, Bobby, we love you. And old military men who had put themselves in their old uniforms again and offer a crisp salute.

So I wanted a character who could just capture and see that full spectrum of this incredible kind of panorama of grief, and also chaos and confusion.

SIMON: Let me get you to read a section of the book, if we could. And talking about another group of characters. These are a group of kids who want to see the train pass by, you know, yet how do you pass the time until the train passes by. It was running very late anyway.

ROWELL: (Reading) Hey, what are we going to do? Walt asked. This is boring just waiting around. He checked his watch. They were expecting the train to come by at 1:15. All right. I know what, Ty said. I'm going to be Sirhan Sirhan and someone be Kennedy. I will, Walt said. OK. Walt's Kennedy in the hotel and he's coming through the kitchen of that hotel.

(Reading) Who are we? Daniel asked. You be the guys that grabbed Sirhan and wrestled the gun out of his hand - Rosey Grier and Rafer Johnson. Who's Rafer Johnson? Daniel asked. Some athlete who won a gold medal in the Olympics, Ty said. OK. I'm Rosey Grier, Daniel said. Michael, you be Rafer Johnson. But other people got shot too. Well, do you want to be the woman instead?" Ty said. A woman got shot.

SIMON: Boy, you know, and I find that utterly plausible because, you know, kids imitate what they see in life and at that point these scenes of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination right after he claimed victory in the California - accepted victory in the California primary - had been played over and over again.

ROWELL: You know, for them perhaps it's a variation of cowboys and Indians. It's a different way to play around but it's starting to occur to them what all this means.

SIMON: Do you hope that people will close your book and fill in the blanks for what happens for the rest of the characters' lives?

ROWELL: I would love that effect. I was very aware that in writing a novel that takes place on a single day there would be very little closure for any of these characters and so I think about that too, a little bit, wondering what happens. Just because I've written the book now, you know, I don't know any more about these characters than someone who would read the book.

So if someone reads this book and wonders what happens to these folks the next day and the next day and a month from now and a year from now, sure, that would thrill me.

SIMON: Mr. Rowell, thanks so much.

ROWELL: Well, thank you very much.

SIMON: David Rowell, his new novel, his debut novel, is "The Train of Small Mercies." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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