A Fateful Train Ride Connects Eras and Cultures in This Novel

By Jonathan Evison

Over a prolific decade, Jonathan Evison has been assessing America through novels about working-class folks — home health aides, lawn workers. His 2011 novel “West of Here” seems most in companionship with his latest, “Small World”: Both are sprawling sagas with dual timelines that follow late-19th-century Westerners and their contemporary descendants. “Small World” opens with a train accident in 2019. The engineer, Walter Bergen, has had a perfect record until this, the final run of his career. The train, heading to Seattle, is “hurtling toward the unavoidable” — both the inevitable crash and, for Walter, an increasing awareness of that final movement in our lives.

The chapters alternate among story lines about a handful of travelers on this train journey, as well as their 1850s ancestors. Brianna Flowers has taken out a payday loan to get her high-achieving son, Malik, to the basketball invitational in Seattle. Her ancestors, George and Cora Flowers, have a tragic love story to tell. Laila Tully, a waitress and descendant of Miwok and Washoe ancestors, is fleeing her abusive white boyfriend and her hometown. Like Brianna’s, Laila’s trip requires a significant amount of her resources.

Jonathan EvisonCredit…Keith Brofsky

The Chen family is economically comfortable, the parents just looking for a weekend getaway, while the preteens wish they were back home with their screens. But the mother, a reformed workaholic named Jenny Chen, is partly responsible for the early retirement that Walter is taking from Amtrak. Her ancestor, Wu Chen, has immigrated to San Francisco from Guangdong and found solidarity in two brothers from the same province. They struck gold, but Wu is haunted by what followed.

The dual timeline sounds more complicated than it is. Evison’s characters are distinctive and the plot is well paced. Depictions of the sibling ache between the separated twins Nora and Finn Bergen (Walter’s ancestors), the survivor’s guilt of Wu and the longing Jenny has for a connection to her parents are deeply felt. Nora never loses hope to be reunited with her brother. Finn heads farther and farther west, building the rails, searching.

Hope is tempered by inequity and injustice. Brianna blames herself when she can’t find enough money to get Malik to Seattle: “She had invested in Malik over the past 16 years, how could she possibly come up $600 short?” Readers observing the context of her life — how she quit an appliance sales job when propositioned by the boss, for instance — can see how the problem is much larger.

But the novel is easy to love in part because it deals in generosity and hope. Part of the reading experience will hinge on how much evidence one needs to believe in humanity’s capacity for altruism. Tam, a server who works with Laila, gives her money that Tam must have been saving for months. Her reasoning is moving: “The whole hope was to save Laila from Tam’s life.” The two brothers from Guangdong invite Wu to search for gold with them, even though their profits will be diluted. And in an early chapter, an Irish immigrant and his daughter, who are struggling in a New York tenement, give what they have to the Bergens, so that they can head west. Did I believe that money would be given, so quickly? Not really. But did I enjoy reading that it was possible? Yes.

The lives of Evison’s characters require action, and this need — to act now and fast — along with the cast’s size, poses the hazard of skimming from their interiority. There might not have been time to linger on Cora’s decision to leave her established life in Chicago to go with George Flowers, who has fled enslavement; she shows him courtesy, but he deeply surprises her with his proposal. Jess Row aptly argues in “White Flights” that many white novelists place their stories in diverse cities, but conveniently omit people of color from their cast. Evison does not omit, and the novel is more expansive because of it, but at times I wished to know more about the characters’ internal lives, the details and contexts outside of the immediate plot.

Does the railway bring us closer together, as promised? George’s captor, Worthy Warnock, pontificates about the transcontinental railroad: “Ah, but what a small world it shall be … when we connect the East and the West.” But is a small world a good thing? For characters in precarity, smallness keeps them trapped: “What a cruel place the world was to be so small,” George says. For Nora, we are connected, instead, by sorrow: “What need of iron horses? It was already a small world when it came to suffering.”

Walter (cisgender, male, white) drives the diverse cast of characters toward impending danger. He ruminates about his daughter’s upcoming marriage, about his own place in the world now that his career is closing: “He was certain he still had something to offer the world. But according to his own daughter … it was time for Walter and the rest of the old white guys to step aside.” An early chapter from Walter’s point of view, with his discomfort in his daughter’s use of the word “queer” to describe herself, suggests a preoccupation far narrower than the novel’s overall scope.

“Small World” is ambitious, showing our interconnectedness across time, place and cultures. What happens on the day of potential tragedy is revealed slowly throughout the book. I wanted to know the conclusion to every character’s story line so much that I wasn’t too concerned with how Walter’s train went awry. The final pages, earnest and direct, chance the sentimental, which might be the riskiest move of all.

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