As the book begins, eleven-year-old Bill Parks has saved up his pocket money to take a train ride into ‘the city’1 (playing hooky from school) to catch a film. Life has been unpleasant at home since he failed his “exams”2, not to mention finding life in a small town as the son of a truck driver somewhat stultifying. Upon his attempted return, he just misses the local train by moments, as he hadn’t bothered to check the current schedule, and impulsively catches the next train going in the right direction…which is the express. Which doesn’t stop at his station. In the course of attempting to correct his mistake, he only gets further lost–he sneaks onto a freight train, not thinking how he’ll get off same when it passes his station, and gets carried out in the countryside on a rail spur that ought not to be in use on a freight carrying things it ought not to be carrying.
He dives off at what looks to be a convenient point, tumbles down the bank and finds his way to the nearest road, where fortuitously, one of the other lorry drivers with whom his dad works just happens to be driving by, spots him and backtracks to pick him up and take him home. Rhys takes Bill home to Bill’s parents, their fuming about the exams set aside as they worry where their boy’s gone.
Amid all the other turmoils in Bill’s life–his education in the short term, his economic potentials in the long term, his mum getting a job then moving out after she has a row with Bill and her husband about finances, and the annoying girl upstairs who did pass her eleven-plus despite being from a poorer background than Bill–he becomes fascinated by the mysterious freight train. Bill’s familiar with all the trains that pass through his town, both passengers and freights, and this one is perplexing. He determines to find out not only where the train was going, but whether it has anything to do with the fertilizer and horse feed that’s been going missing recently. He does discover that, after a bad few moments both prior and subsequent to unraveling the mystery. I’m going to leave the plot description there, except to say that we shouldn’t judge people merely by appearance: the engineer who appears to be hot-tempered and swift to use his fists on humans proves to be a soft touch for animals, and has adopted several mistreated animals, without the knowledge of or permission from their owners.
This is another of the books I found at a local book-oriented yard sale this summer, and found interesting to read. I think it’s intended to be a thriller for middle grade students, though the separation of decades and an ocean might make this slightly perplexing for American kids today. (Can’t really speak to what British kids in the appropriate age/reading range at the time of the book’s publication thought of it.) As with Second-Hand Family, I suspect this might be as much a nostalgic trip down Memory Lane for adults who’d been in the intended age range when the book first came out as it would be for kids today in that age.
Just as an example of the sort of problems American kids today might have: if I’ve interpreted the book correctly, these are the Eleven Plus exams, as Bill reflects that he’s somewhat relieved that he won’t have to go to the grammar school with all the academically clever children, but rather can go to the secondary modern school, where he’ll be able to work with his hands rather than his head (i.e. get something closer to vocational training rather than college prep courses)
It’s an interesting glimpse into a time not too terribly long ago about a working class boy in England. It’s not much of a mystery and the plot’s a bit perplexing–I had to read it three times before managing to summarize the book–but might be interesting for kids who’re interested in trains. While the animal mistreatment is a significant sub-plot, it’s almost a MacGuffin: the trains play a much larger part in the book as a whole. Overall, I’d call it a combination of period piece and mainstream description of working-class life in the late ’60s and early ’70s in England3.
1Stewart doesn’t specify which one
2I’m guessing the Eleven Plus. More on this later in the post…
3don’t get pissy now, if you’re from the U.K. So far as I can tell, it’s in England, close to Wales