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RyPN Briefs April 20, 2009
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Book Review: Pelican Road
A Novel by Howard Bahr

MacAdam/Cage 2008

We seldom see any fiction based in the world of historic railroading, and what little does get published is usually fraught with inaccuracies that spoil it for those of us with some understanding of the subject.

Howard Bahr has provided us with a book that takes place in a world we can understand without such problems, and with a richness and depth of color that brings us into his world. Bahr was a railroader and seaman before giving up honest work to become an academic, and his experience graces every page with gritty reality.

Consider this excerpt describing the roundhouse: "Its vast floor, and the floor of the pit, were of cinders and beds of ancient, petrified grease. Everything was under a common roof and lit constantly by electricity, since not even the white sun of August could penetrate the smeared and blackened skylights. Every surface was coated with a fine dusting of soot so that, in time, the clothing of the men that worked there was the color of soot and so deeply penetrated that no Oxydol or Clorox could redeem it." A shorter but pithy line mentioned that cabooses were of many colors, "but all smelled the same." How many of us could argue with either of these, or fail to immediately transport ourselves into the scene?

Pelican Road is the mainline of the Southern between New Orleans and Meridian, around which the action takes place. It is set at the dawning of WW II, with the characters being primarily of two generations, the older heads petering out as the younger WW I veterans generation takes over. Each character is vividly drawn with little excursions into their pasts so that we understand them as they are at the time of the story as complete, dimensional people with histories that color their actions.

Tragedy, comedy and day-to-day life are all presented as the story gradually and gently unfolds towards its climax a meet scheduled incorrectly by a dispatcher at two contiguous stations, between the northbound varnish and a southbound peddler freight, both trying to make up time on Christmas Eve. It is a ride you should take as well.