Review: When the Whistle Blows - Fran Slayton

When the Whistle Blows

by Fran Slayton

Ages 9-12

160 pages

Philomel, June 2009

Summary from Amazon:
Jimmy lives in Rowlesburg, West Virginia, during the 1940s. He does all the things boys do in the small mountain town: plays a mean game of football, pulls the unforgettable Halloween prank with his friends in “the Platoon,” and promises to head off into the woods on the first day of hunting season— no matter what. He also knows his father belongs to a secret society, and is determined to uncover the mysteries behind it! But it is a midnight encounter with a train that shows Jimmy the man his father really is.
I was captivated by these vignettes of a rural railroad community in the 1940s. Rowlesburg is a West Virginia steam train town on the cusp of the diesel revolution.  Jimmy is twelve in the first chapter, which takes place on one day -- All Hallows' Eve, to be precise. Each chapter carries the reader one year later in Jimmy's life, with its consummate trials, tests and triumphs.

This short middle-grade novel is a winner. The voice of a growing adolescent is authentic and the historic setting springs to life on every page. Think Stand By Me.

It's funny, too. Here's a taste: "I spit hard onto the ground. The spit is good quality -- heavy and thick with no lumps -- and it comes out in a perfect, spinning wad that slaps itself onto the ground just like the way I'd like to slap Stubby upside the head."

On the other hand, I'm not sure if this will appeal to my typical middle grade boy readers. The content is all boy -- football, trains, gross practical jokes, dead bodies -- but the actual story mostly takes place in Jimmy's head. Although the pacing is fairly quick and the stories are engaging, I'm not sure if it has enough dialogue or action to carry the day.

In addition, it's rife with emotion. Jimmy deals with some pretty intense feelings through the course of seven years. I would like to think this will not put boys off, but the sexist cynic in me wonders. It reminds me of the kind of "I love you, man" melodrama that women writers think men feel, but men themselves scoff at. I guess in the end, being a girl reader myself, I will have to try this out on some boys-who-only-read-boy-books and see what they think.

I would give this to readers of Richard Peck and kids who liked Heart of a Shepherd (another excellent book, by the way).

Other Reviews - and wow, there are a lot of them!  I am assuming this is because Fran is herself a blogger.

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