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On the Blue Comet    by Rosemary Wells & Bagram Ibatoulline order for
On the Blue Comet
by Rosemary Wells
Order:  USA  Can
Candlewick, 2010 (2010)
Hardcover, CD, e-Book

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* *   Reviewed by Bob Walch

Mixing trains and time travel, Rosemary Wells' novel for readers ten years of age and up offers a curious look at the period from the Crash of 1929 to the outbreak of World War II.

Oscar Ogilvie lives in Cario, Illinois, with his father. The eleven year old's mother is dead and the Great Depression has resulted in the loss of the family home. Oscar is staying with his aunt while his father seeks employment in California.

The separation is difficult enough without the added unhappiness caused by the fact that Oscar and his beloved father's model Lionel train layout, once housed in the basement of their home, was also sold to the local banker.

On display in the lobby of the town's bank, Oscar views his onetime possession when robbers strike the building. A series of odd events during the heist turn the train set into a time machine that initially transports the child ten years into the future before a reversal of fortunes, and then takes him back to when he was about six years old.

As his train rides (in model and real trains) from coast-to-coast usher him back and forth in time periods, the young boy meets interesting historical figures and tries to cope with the radical changes in his life. Among the folks he encounters are movie legend Ronald Reagan, director Alfred Hitchcock, and a host of Wall Street movers-and-shakers, such as Henry Mellon, John P. Morgan, Joe Kennedy and Nelson Rockefeller.

Though it's readable story with likeable characters (especially Oscar and a young girl he befriends along the way), the premise is a little shaky. I fear that young readers will have a hard time really understanding the idea behind the switch in time periods, the move from Lionel to real trains and, in this instance, the time traveler concept. Also, the characters and historical events, in some instances, will be lost on the reader, although his or her parents may understand who the people are or what the significance of a given situation is. For example, the Wall Street folks scoff when told by Oscar that a crash is on its way. They don't believe him because he also says that a man named Roosevelt will be president.

One of the men Oscar speaks with named Merrill says, 'President Franklin Roosevelt, my eye! Polio is what Frank Roosevelt has. He's flat on his back in bed ... He'll never run for president or anything else for the rest of his life!'

Since fantasy is very popular with young readers, this novel may actually work and my fears may be unjustified. But, as a former teacher, I am afraid the historical significance of major events and clues that identify famous characters may be lost because the readers' educations have been watered down to the point where they have a cursory knowledge of events such as the Crash of 1929, the Dust Bowl, and even the attack on Pearl Harbor. Also, how many pre-teens (or adults for that matter) know that Ronald Reagan's nickname was Dutch?

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