The Train of Small Mercies by David Rowell

November 14, 2012

Plot summary (from the publisher): On June 8, 1968, as the train carrying Robert F. Kennedy’s body travels from New York City to Washington D.C., the nation mourns the loss of a dream. As citizens congregate along the tracks to pay their respects, Michael Colvert, a New Jersey sixth grader, sets out to see his first dead body. Delores King creates a tangle of lies to sneak away from her controlling husband. Just arrived in the nation’s capitol to interview for a nanny position with the Kennedy family, Maeve McDerdon must reconcile herself to an unknown future. Edwin Rupp’s inaugural pool party takes a backseat to the somber proceedings. Jamie West, a Vietnam vet barely out of high school, awaits a newspaper interview meant to restore his damaged self-esteem. And Lionel Chase arrives at Penn Station for his first day of work—a staggering assignment as a porter aboard RFK’s funeral train.

Warning: Spoilers below!


  • This was an interesting premise with a lot of potential. The JFK assassination tends to get more play because he was the president, but RFK’s assassination also impacted a lot of people. Using his funeral train as a unifying event for the characters in this novel was a good idea.
  • Dolores and Rebecca intrigued me the most. The way she was acting and all the intricate lies she created made it seem like her husband Arch was highly abusive or something. I kept waiting for him to find her and beat her. That was really the only storyline that had any kind of tension at all, which is probably why I enjoyed it.


  • Because six different storylines were covered in this relatively short book, none of them were given ample time to allow the reader to connect with the characters. I didn’t care about ANY of the people here, and thought a majority of the stories were boring. The pool party, Michael (the fifth grader whose father took him to Michigan without permission), and Lionel the train conductor were all incredibly dull, while Jamie and Maeve were only slightly more interesting.
  • There wasn’t even any resolution to the storyline I cared most about. The book ends with Rebecca in a coma at the hospital and Dolores and Arch getting kicked out of the room because visiting hours have come to an end. Really? After suffering through all the other crap, the author couldn’t be bothered to come up with a decent conclusion?
  • Whenever the author talked about the political life of RFK, he came off as very preachy. In fact, his writing took on such an expository style during those parts that I had to check to see if this was intended for a younger audience that wouldn’t understand anything more subtle. It wasn’t.


David Rowell’s debut novel received some high praise from professional reviewers, so I was looking forward to trying it. But The Train of Small Mercies didn’t resonate with me in the least — and I don’t think it had anything to do with the fact that I was born well after RFK’s assassination. The characters weren’t sympathetic or easy to relate to, and the ADD-style flitting from storyline to storyline derailed (heh) any chance this book had of being enjoyable. I give it 2 stars out of 5.

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