January 24, 2017
Train I Ride is a middle grade novel that takes place over a days-long Amtrak ride from California to Chicago. Rydr is 12, soon to be 13, and must move to Chicago to live with her only remaining family member: a mysterious uncle who she suspects is taking her in just to get the child support check. While she’s running from a complicated past, her future is too uncertain to offer any comfort, and there are few diversions on the train to keep her from looking backward. As she struggles to take control of her life, Rydr finds something close to family in some of the Amtrak staff and discovers a bit of romance with a young passenger as well.
While the novel is largely an exploration of Rydr’s psyche, it is also an escapist fantasy. Rydr fantasizes that Neal, the kind, handsome snack counter employee, is her father—a man she never met—and treats Dorothea, the Amtrak employee assigned as her caretaker, as a mother-ish figure. Carlos, an older man who is traveling to find material for his poetry, offers her sage, grandfatherly wisdom. Perhaps the most idealistic relationship she develops on the trip is her quick romance with Tenderchunks, an unfortunately nicknamed boy scout who, unlike his gruff, gross boy scout companions, is kind and gives Rydr a copy of Alan Ginsberg’s Howl. The friendships Rydr creates with these characters allow her to slowly and safely open up about the traumatic pieces of her past and fear surrounding abandonment in a matter of days, and while her growth feels a bit too fast to be realistic, it works as a comforting fantasy about the power of chosen family.
As she grows emotionally, Rydr also develops a love for poetry. Carlos subtly begins to cultivate this love by questioning Rydr about her emotions and pushing her to find the right words to express them. Simultaneously, Rydr reads Howl and discusses it’s effective power with Tenderchunks. Mosier doesn’t utilize Howl‘s text, but instead focuses on the book’s visceral impact, which allows readers to engage with the idea of poetry rather than the poem itself. Adolescents who feel similarly drawn to poetry will enjoy this aspect of the book, but those who don’t won’t feel alienated.
There are a few moments in the novel that feel like troubling caricatures. In a flashback scene, Rydr recalls playing Bingo with her grandmother and describes observing an elderly man with dementia play along with his wife. In Rydr’s eyes the man has reverted almost to infancy, and she becomes a quiet hero when she helps him win a cash prize. This scene is meant to show that Rydr—who understandably is focused on herself—does care for others, and perhaps identifies with someone whose caretaker is completely in control of his life. However, it felt like a disrespectful portrait of elderly dementia; this man exists solely for the purpose of this strange memory.
A more disconcerting moment in the novel occurs when Rydr, who has almost no money and is starving, hands over $5 in quarters to a young Native American girl selling bracelets by the train tracks. The entire image—an indigenous child and her mother who speaks no English selling bracelets in an arid desert—is a strange, stereotypical scene that relies on a caricature of a minority to reveal Rydr’s selflessness.
These issues aside, pre-teen readers—especially those interested in poetry—will love the romance and drama in Train I Ride. However, it may feel especially poignant for young readers trapped in difficult situations. Rydr dodges several stereotypical “troubled girl” issues and learns a bit about her inner strength; such a story could provide comfort to readers in need of escapist literature. Additionally, the novel gives some depth to archetypal roles—bro boy scout, green-haired alternative girl, sensitive poetry reading boy—in interesting ways that will appeal to middle schoolers looking for a novel that isn’t all about typical school cliques.