On the Blue Comet with Rosemary Wells

Rosemary Wells, On the Blue Comet (Candlewick 2010)

This book is a beautiful object. Nicely proportioned, with just the right heft to appeal to its intended readers, ten- or eleven-year-old boys, it has a number of gorgeous full page illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline, but gorgeous in a boy-friendly way – lots of model trains, and a threatening gun or two. The illustrations remind me of my infatuation with my parents’ illustrated Last of the Mohicans when I was 10 or so – all that’s missing is the interleaved tissue paper.

Rosemary Wells was responsible for an extraordinary number of small picture books that gave delight to my family when the young were small. ‘You’re cruisin’ for a bruisin’,’ the eponymous hamster heroine’s threat to the eponymous hamster hero in Benjamin and Tulip, was often quoted in our house, and the domestic struggles between stubborn Max and his bossy big sister Ruby never grew old.

Many young readers will be engrossed and delighted by the plot of On the Blue Comet, which features not only model trains, and real ones, but also a mysterious Chinese hypnotic device, time travel, almost-plausible nerdy science, armed bank robbers, an idealised father, and a gratifying number of twists on the way to an expected conclusion. But it’s not one of those children’s books, like the best of Max and Ruby, that adults can enjoy in the absence of a hypothetical child reader. Some of the plot mechanics creak, and there are occasional inconsistencies. My experience is that those things don’t matter if I’m engrossed in a book, so something else may have been going on. Perhaps I was a little alienated by the Americana aspects: US cities, iconic US trains, US Presidents, famous US tycoons, US movie personalities, all appear or are lovingly named with an almost liturgical effect, and the book feels at times as if its emotional driver is love of 1930s USA, or perhaps even an agenda to awaken such a love in the reader. Not a jingoistic love by any means, but definitely an insider’s love. I enjoyed it, as an undemanding read when I’ve been struck down by a head-clogging lurgie, but I feel as if Rosemary Wells and I live in different parishes.

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