Thursday, March 4, 2010

REVIEW: When the Whistle Blows

When the Whistle BlowsSlayton, F.C. (2009). When the Whistle Blows. New York: Philomel Books.


162 pages.

Appetizer: Rooted in the history of 1940s Rowlesburg, West Virginia, this fictional story shares how Jimmy spends each All Hallows' Eve starting with the year he's twelve or thirteen to the time he's about eighteen or nineteen. Over the years, Jimmy and his friends and family deal with the loss of a loved one, seek revenge for a prank, battle for a day off of school, and compete in an intense football game, among other things.

The opening on the first page (quoted below) and the following descriptions of the space and of Jimmy's world sucked me in and kept me reading. For example, I absolutely love the description on mage five:

"It's cold out here. The fog's oozing down the sides of the mountains. Typical West Virginia October. But not typical Rowlesburg. I don't think I've ever been outside so late--or so early?--in my whole life. I blink to get my bearings. The town's different this time of night--like a log all hollowed out with dark rot. There are no bunches of us boys kicking the can in the street. No ladies headed towards the five-and-dime, swatting their kids in line behind them. Just lampposts and pavement and fog. Even the echo of the Mallet engine's whistle sounds like a ghost of its daylight self."

Nice, right?

Jimmy is growing up with the whistles of the trains always in the background and it seems with death always near by, since working the rails is dangerous work. As Jimmy ages, he takes on dealing with his evolving relationships with his older brothers and father. His father desires for Jimmy to stay in school and graduate instead of quitting to work on the railroad as the rest of his family has done. But Jimmy would like nothing more than to join his father and brothers.

I love the structure of the book, showing a short piece of Jimmy's life during the Halloween season and continue to grow the same tensions and reference the events of the previous years. Very well put together.

As I continued reading though, I did start to wonder about the lack of racial representation. Part of this is because in the first story, Jimmy is woken by his brother to follow the adult men to a secret society meeting. When reading that, my mind immediately went to the dark KKK place. And it was a nice break that that wasn't the direction the story was going. But as the stories went on, racial tensions are never addressed. World War II only gets one or two brief references and all of the female characters in the book exist at the very periphery of the stories.

Now, having given that critique, none of those things are the focus of the story. This is very much a boy book about the relationships among guys.

Dinner Conversation:

"Every time I go to jump on a steam train as it chugs its way through Rowlesburg--
Every time I throw out my hands to grab the rusty metal rungs and haul myself up onto the side of one of them black coal cars, hoisting my knees up over its churning, screeching wheels--
Every single time I jump on a train--my heart thumps even noisier in my ears than the clanking of the old iron horse I'm hopping onto" (p. 1).

"The society? A pilot light goes on in the back of my head. Whisperings I've heard before. Rumors about men meeting in the dead of night. Of unseen rituals. Secret initiations. My memory kick-starts, recollecting the way me and Mike--and in my earliest memories, even Bill--used to peek down the steps late at night, way after bedtime, watching Dad walk out the kitchen's door with a bottle of whiskey in his hand. Going to a meeting, Mary Etta, he'd say to Mom. A society meeting. A meeting we kids weren't supposed to know anything about, much less discuss" (p. 7).

"Meet me back here at eight o'clock to defend the honor of this Platoon!"
Cheers go up as if we're already avenged. Everyone gets on their bikes and rides off towards home. Everyone but Neil Fisher.
"Okay, ol'Platoon buddy, what's the plan?"
"I'll 'splain you the whole thing when we meet back here at eight, Neil."
"So you don't have one then."
I look over at him. "Right" (pp. 33-34).

"Mr. Evans came to Rowlesburg direct from New York City, and he thinks hunting is what he calls "savage." Us kids think he's what we call "an idiot." Lonnie Brice, who's been in the tenth grade for the last three years, called him a daggone Yankee to his face in the hallway just yesterday. Lonnie got a three-day suspension for that little bit of protest. So then Wigger Bowles did the same thing, and he got a three-day suspension, too. It wasn't until Mr. Evans had suspended about ten other boys that he finally figured out that he'd been suspending them all so they wouldn't have to be in school tomorrow, which is the first day of hunting season. Of course that's exactly what they'd wanted in the first place, so Mr. Evans had to back up and cancel every last one of their suspensions. Dad says they got all kinds of sense in New York City excepting the common kind" (p. 49).

To Go with the Meal:

To bring When the Whistle Blows into a class, I would probably read one of the early chapters aloud around Halloween. Then to incorporate a creative activity, a teacher could assign students to write their own All Hallows' Eve reflections or works of fictions.  Students could also voice or write the stories of how their own families arrived in the U.S.

A teacher could also include the book into social studies lessons about American life in the 1940s. A teacher could focus on the book's sense of regionalism and the fact that Rowlesburg was a railroad town and the economic impact that has on a location as technologies change or companies close.   A student interested in trains would probably enjoy the way they enter into the settings and tensions.

Tasty Rating: !!!!

I received a copy of this book as a part of 1 ARC Tours. I read it and sent the ARC on to the next reviewer.

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