CM . . .
. Volume VIII Number 15 . . . . March 29, 2002
Now an old man, Archie O'Hanlon recalls a strange "December day in 1899, sixty years ago" that "after having a lifetime to turn it over in [his] mind" he still fails to understand. As a 14-year old chef's assistant on the Dublin-Achill line of the Midland Great Western Railway of Ireland, he encounters a fractious and peculiar passenger, Mr. Cink, and his first class traveling companions, Mr. Fee and Mr. Smyth. They embark upon an extraordinary and mystifying seven-hour journey on an unusually empty train. Cink proposes a story-telling contest to pass the time and coerces Archie into judging the competition. Fee refuses to compete but happily tells a story he entitles "Soul Cages" featuring mystical creatures of the deep interacting with humans. Smyth, forced by Cink to tell his story next, relates the tale of "Bewitched Butter" in which a neighbour's trickery and sorcery threaten a successful farmer's agricultural business. Finally Cink tells of Daniel O'Rourke's "night spent with the fairies" which Cink insists is "a combination of fantasy and adventure with a dash of whimsy" and will be the best because he "will conjure up real people in real situations, instead of pretend people in pretend situations."
Gebler presents his version of three traditional Irish stories uniquely within the structure of Archie's story. Each of the passengers performs his story well and captivates Archie's imagination; each of the stories resonates with magic and mystery. However, "a story wasn't like a sum; a sum was either right or wrong. But a story could never be said to be right or wrong. I'd listened to each story and I thought they were each as good as each other because my attention hadn't strayed once," Archie admits. As the journey proceeds, Cink becomes increasingly abusive and threatening, causing Archie considerable misgiving. Finally when Cink presses to be pronounced the winner and devises a ploy to ensure his success, Archie too devises a clever ruse to thwart Cink's devious plan.
Gebler, who writes fiction for adults and children and directs documentary films, clearly relishes story telling and understands his country's folklore. He incorporates classic characteristics of the genre into his stories. The magical number, three, figures in the stories as well as in the design of the novel. Structurally three train segments alternate with three folk tales. Each tale opens with a variation of the "once upon a time" phraseology; each story includes good and evil characters, involves common people and/or animals, and has good triumph over evil. Incidentally, the protagonists are males with problems to solve; women only appear in secondary roles. The carefully paced prose successfully creates a milieu of the foreboding, the sinister, and the unexplainable. Strong dialogue and rich description build an increasingly chilling atmosphere culminating in some fairly graphic images in the concluding section, "The Inferno." Employing the folktale conventions of repetitious words and phrases the three stories beg to be read aloud.
Targeted at young readers, Caught on a Train defies age grouping with its universal themes and imaginative story telling.
Golke is a retired teacher-librarian who lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.