Fuse #8

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Review of the Day: Railroad John and the Red Rock Run

Railroad John and the Red Rock Run by Tony Crunk (great name), illustrated by Michael Austin. Peachtree Publishers. $10.95.

I once worked in a library where one of my small patrons, a boy of three or four years, had an incurable railroad obsession. Any book you handed him that involved trains was devoured by his greedy little peepers within seconds. At that time I started keeping a keen eye out for train literature in the event that I might possibly find some kind of a book involving locomotives that he hasn’t already seen. Nowandays I no longer work at that particular library, but since that time my trained eye (ha ha) has been continually on notice. You can understand then my excitement when I first saw, “Railroad John and the Red Rock Run”. Trains in place? Check. Fun story? Check. Wacked out illustrations that make you sit up and take notice? Check. And, most important of all, does it have some good old-fashioned westernized English full of sentences like, “so peppery hot it made the crows’ eyes water thirty-two miles away”? Honey, this might just be your lucky day.

Oh the outlook wasn’t pretty for the Sagebrush Flyer that day. Sure, Railroad John assured passengers Lonesome Bob and Granny Apple Fritter that he’d never been late to a stop in the last forty years he’d driven his train, but sometimes fate works against a person. You see, Lonesome Bob is to be married at exactly 2:00 and if he doesn’t show up then Wildcat Annie, the love of his life, may never be his bride. At first all is well, but wouldn’t you know it but that nasty varmint of an outlaw, Bad Bill, immediately robs the train of all its coal. That dilemma is solved when it’s discovered that Granny’s Hard-Shell Chili-Pepper Corn-Pone Muffins make for an adequate super-hot substitute. But then a bridge gets washed away (remedied by some guitar strings, believe it or not), Granny runs out of muffins, and just when all seems to be for naught a tornado comes along, picks up the train, and plops them right smack down in front of their destined station on the dot. But wait! Where’s Wildcat Annie? The answer leads to one heckuva hoedown wedding and the book ends with the thoughtful vision of a single boy playing with his model train in an attic. Make of that what you will.

I’m a sucker for smart use of colloquial English, by the way. Crunk never disintegrates into an overabundance of “consarn it”s and Yosemite Sam speak, but at the same time he knows how to keep his language colorful and fun. So sentences like “She’s wild as a panther, but sweet as a honeybee’s gold tooth”, strike a chord with me. Any book in which characters let loose with phrases like “Well, this is a vexation” while they are “squeezing out tears the size of elephant’s eggs”, may well have my ever and abiding love. The plot itself is a good rootin’ tootin’ adventure tale, but with enough train imagery and mentions that children with one track minds (hee hee) will be able to relate to it entirely on that level as well. I admit that I also liked that the book pokes mild fun at picture books that include recipes in their pages by including one for Granny’s Hard-Shell Chili-Pepper Corn-Pone Muffins. Lest you start heating up the stove, please bear in mind that the instructions call for porcupine eggs, cactus flour, lightning-roasted hot chili peppers, and an oven that’s roundabout 1250 degrees (give or take).

A person may be intrigued by a picture book’s premise, but they’ll set that puppy down in a minute if the images in the story don’t grab them. Credit one Mr. Michael Austin then with knowing how to successfully wrangle a viewer’s attention. Painted in sepia-toned acrylic, Austin’s smooth old-timey feel captures the book’s era, to say nothing of its tone. I loved that the endpapers would ripple and wave like the faded corduroy on Bad Bill’s pants. Each image is mounted and framed like an old photographic image, their edges nipped and rounded with age. At the same time, the sepia doesn’t appear to be limiting in the least. I found myself staring for long periods of time at the individual hairs visible on a horse’s mane or the way in which light would play through the train’s thick glass windows. Austin isn’t afraid to pop in a humorous detail for those with quick eyes too. When Granny (whose face is never seen) first proposes feeding her muffins to the engine, the accompanying image shows her balancing a plate with one hand, the muffins carefully concealed under a hazmat warning symbol (under glass, no less). Maybe I enjoyed the last picture in the book most of all, though. When you look at the pile of old faded photographs sitting on the floor of the attic, you’ve a sense of what they might contain. And isn’t that Granny’s apple-laden hat sitting on the back of that chair? Or Lonesome’s guitar nearby? Best of all, this last picture at first appears to be sepia-toned, but a second glance reveals that there is color. It’s just been a little washed out by the bright light of the day.

I did have some slight quarrels with the book, mind you. Plot gaps are the nature of tall tales such as this, but that shouldn’t mean that solutions to problems are so vague as to remain unmentioned. Take, for example, the moment when the bridge over Cripplesome Creek (love the name) is washed out. Lonesome John solves the matter by lashing his guitar strings together. Here’s how the solution is reached as the book puts it. “Lonesome Bob lassoed the forked end and whipped it down over the creek – just in time! The Sagebrush flyer sailed right across!” Come again? How did the train sail across? I suppose the solution could have been found in the picture, but the image that Mr. Austin chose to pair with that exact moment was just of the throwing of the rope. Not so much the how-did-the-train-get-across-the-river part. Did the train run over the makeshift rope as it would railroad tracks? Did they swing across? It cries out for a better explanation.

I’ve been waiting a long time for a book that would pair nicely with Anne Isaacs’, “Swamp Angel”. Now I think I’ve found one. Should you wish to dust off your Western drawl and crack open this book alongside the aformention Isaacs and maybe even Susan Lowell's “Dusty Locks and the Three Bears”, I daresay you’d have the hottest storytime your kids ever did see. Consider this one of those wonderful unexpected finds, hidden within your picture book shelves.

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