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There is a tradition in Anglo-American literature of coming-of-age tales that capture the mystery and magic of youth by invoking the supernatural. Stand-outs in the genre include Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes, Robert McCammon's Boy's Life, Dan Simmons's Summer of Night, and Jim Black's River Season. Ever Harper Lee's classic, To Kill a Mockingbird derives much moodiness from hints that Boo Radley is some kind of monster and, just because of the identity of the author, Stephen King's The Body and Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon read like horror stories. Fran Cannon Slayton's first novel, When the Whistle Blows, does not have any magic in it, but is nonetheless magical.

In a set of interlocking stories--set on successive All Hallows' Eves, from 1943 to 1949--Jimmy Cannon grows from a boy of 12 to a young man of 18. Like Ms Slayton's own father, he does so in Rowlesburg, WV, alongside the B&O Railroad and the Cheat River. Jimmy's father is the foreman for the railroad and his older brother, like most of the men in town, works for them too. But, as his dad warns them, the age of diesels is right around the corner and when the steam trains go they'll take most of the work with them. Rowlesburg is palpably a town without a future. Likewise, Mr. Cannon has emphysema and is old before his time. Jimmy is in a figurative race with a diesel train, to see if he'll be a man before his father and the way of life he loves both pass.

Ms Slayton does an extraordinary job of vesting us emotionally in a time and a place who days we know are numbered. I was reminded of How Green Was My Valley in that regard. Jimmy's own gang of friends, the Platoon, parallels the secret society of the railroad workers and there's something particularly effecting about the way the men retain the same kind of bonds we all had as boys. Fraternal organizations are long since out of style, but the stories here remind us of their value and the social cohesion they fostered.

Change, for the worse, is also represented by the new principal in town, a city fella who thinks school should be open on the first day of hunting season. The response that provokes is just one of the amusing bits in the book, several of which are laugh-out-loud funny.

You'll laugh. You'll cry. You'll not soon forget this terrific debut novel.


Grade: (A+)


Fran Slayton Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: Fran Cannon Slayton Author, Dreamer
    -AUTHOR BLOG: Fran Cannon Slayton Author, Dreamer (LiveJournal)
    -BOOK PAGE: When the Whistle Blows (Penguin Books)
    -ESSAY: On Wakes and Rum (and Coke) (Fran Cannon Slayton,
-INTERVIEW: Father Knows Best: An Interview with Fran Cannon Slayton: Fran Cannon Slayton’s tribute to her dad’s younger days is a treasure (Rick Margolis, 6/01/09, School Library Journal)
    -INTERVIEW: Virtual Sitdown with Fran Cannon Slayton (Angela Wilson, 6/15/09, Pop Syndicate)
    -INTERVIEW: Author Interview: Fran Cannon Slayton (Into the Wardrobe, 4/28/09)
    -INTERVIEW: Class of 2k9 Interview: Fran Cannon Slayton (Shelf Elf, June 11, 2009)
    -PROFILE: Writer turns her W.Va. family stories into a coming-of-age book: Fran Slayton loved visiting West Virginia during family vacations. Someday, she thought, she was going to write a book inspired by her family's stories. And now she has. (Sarah Sullivan, 6/13/09, Charleston Gazette)
    -PROFILE: Whistle blower: ‘Farfetched’ dream earns Slayton rave reviews (Lisa Provence, 6/09/09, The Hook News)
    -REVIEW: of When the Whistle Blows by Rran Cannon Slayton (Diane Chen, School Library Journal)
    -REVIEW: of When the Whistle Blows (Tarie, Into the Wardrobe)

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