What most impressed me about On the Blue Comet, Rosemary Wells, (2010,329 pages), were the several Norman Rockwell-like full color pictures by illustrator Bagram Ibatoulline. It’s amazing that a middle grade book would have such illustrations. I can’t think of other middle grade novels that have such detailed pictures, but if readers of this blog know of some, I would love to get the titles.
Author Rosemary Wells is a household name among fans of children’s picture books, as she has written or illustrated more than sixty, including the well-known Max and Ruby series. As an illustrator herself, perhaps she wanted to collaborate with Mr. Ibatoulline in order to create a truly special book.
At the beginning of this story, Oscar Ogilvie is living quite contentedly with his father. They share a love of model trains, an extensive collection of which they have set up in their basement. Oscar loves to get down eye level with the trains and imagine himself on them. But when the stock market crashes in 1929, Oscar’s father loses his house and job. Their peaceful life comes to an abrupt end. The train set is sold to the owner of the local bank. While his father goes to California to try to find work, Oscar has to live with his strict Aunt Carmen. Oscar is unhappy staying with his aunt and his young cousin Willa Sue. He is somewhat cheered when he makes friends with a newly unemployed teacher, Mr. Applegate .
Mr. Applegate tutors Oscar in arithmetic and poetry and Oscar grasps important aspects about these subjects for the first time. At one point, Mr. Applegate notes that time travel should theoretically be possible. Mr. Applegate secures a job as a guard in a bank. The owner of the bank is the man who bought Oscar’s old train set and he has it set up in the lobby. Oscar regularly visits Mr. Applegate at the bank in the evenings when it is closed and they run the trains.
One night there is a bank robbery. Mr. Applegate screams, “Jump”, Oscar hears a shot and jumps into the train layout. The next thing he knows he is on a real train. He is happy to learn he is heading west so that he can look for his father. His trip becomes complicated as he realizes he has time traveled. He finds himself and his father ten years older when he arrives in the Golden State.
I don’t know what would be the ideal age for this book. Many fourth and fifth graders would not understand or appreciate the historical background, although I think they could still enjoy the basic plot. Middle school kids could understand the Great Depression which colors this story, yet I don’t think most middle schoolers want to read a book with a big old-fashioned train on the cover. However, plenty of grown men play with trains (I know, I know, they don’t call it that), so perhaps train-loving tweens are out there.
I liked the story, set in 1929-1949. The period details and old-fashioned style of pictures create a cozy mood. The book drips with nostalgia that a lot of adult readers may appreciate. Oscar encounters several famous figures from that time period (such as Alfred Hitchcock). Some readers might get a kick out of this, although I found it a little contrived. The time travel and Oscar’s sudden aging was fun. If you have ever vividly imagined entering a miniature scene, as in the book Sixty-Eight Rooms reviewed here last week, you may enjoy Oscar’s entry into the toy train world.