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Train Dreams
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2013 Book Discussions > Train Dreams - Chapter 3 (June 2013)

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Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments In chapter three, how was the young Grainier affected by his encounter with half-dead William Haley and the tragic tale of Haley’s niece?

Lily (joy1) | 2456 comments Amazing what Johnson packs into these nine pages -- what we are given of Grainier's origins, standing beside his step-father as the Chinese are driven from the town (a source of Grainier's own bigotry, one may suppose),a flood, kids' shenanigans with the beeswax, his schooling and formal learnin', becoming a layabout, the shocking tale of 42-year-old William Haley. Johnson just sort of layers the terrors on, from the tragic (origins), to the ridiculous (beeswax), to the horrible (Haley), all the time weaving a background that makes them believable.

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Indeed. Amongst other things we’re told that Grainier never knew his parents and wasn’t even sure if he had been born in the United States or in Canada.

In the absence of a mother and a father, who and what shaped his identity? Was he destined to end up a solitary?

message 4: by Lily (last edited Jun 25, 2013 03:23AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2456 comments Sophia wrote: "...In the absence of a mother and a father, who and what shaped his identity?..."

Certainly his uncle seems to have had an impact, probably on his willingness as an adult to work hard, but also on his bigotry, given the account of his earliest memory. (pp 26-27) He also apparently accepted his aunt as mother. But, he must have been at least a bit of odd young male out at his sister's house.

"Was he destined to end up a solitary? ..."

I don't think so, even if his situation probably inclined him toward the solitary. He could have ended up the opposite, still his circumstances of just arriving by himself probably left this kid with some primitive sense of lonely self survival. His cousins probably had a push-pull impact on any sense of belonging, one saying he was truly a cousin, the other denying such. The dynamics sounded as if they were different than just among siblings jockeying for position with parents and between each other.

Although Johnson positions Grainier's aunt and uncle as becoming viewed as Mother and Father, when he speaks of their deaths, he writes "...following the death of their parents, his aunt and uncle Helen and Robert Grainier." So there is a sense of closeness of relationship both affirmed and denied -- thought-provoking writing. (There is also a hint the boy may have been closer to his aunt than his uncle: "their mother, whom Grainier thought of as his own mother as much as theirs" versus "this smoky-smelling man he'd quickly got to calling Father" -- one can almost hear the authoritative insistence as much as or more than affectionate response. Johnson also gives him a blood-link to his aunt, referring to her as the sister of Grainier's father.)

message 5: by Lily (last edited Jun 25, 2013 03:27AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2456 comments The encounter with Haley could be interpreted as another example of Grainier experiencing the world around him as a series of events rather belonging to him alone, rather than to be shared, talked about, and understood with others.

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments I like this observation. Is is it because of Johnson's characterisation of Grainier that the author is enabled to tiptoe "a tightrope between peace and calamity"? I know I keep quoting what Anthony Doerr has to say about this book, but he does seem to have a real feel for what is being written about - and how.

message 7: by Lily (last edited Jun 26, 2013 07:40AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2456 comments Sophia -- don't know that I am yet in a place to comment on Doerr's critique, but you might find it interesting to know that part of my evolving perspectives on Train Dreams has been driven by following its reading it with John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga. (I hadn't realized JG was a Nobel Prize winner in 1932; I only associated the name and book with the legendary BBC series that I hadn't watched.) Anyway, what a contrast in how families work between the Grainiers and the Forsytes. I don't think it is just a difference in place and wealth; certainly there are sprawling families of much lesser means than the Forsyte's who offer a sometimes corrosive, sometimes sustaining support system of conversation, gossip, visits, and ongoing contact across generations, so very unlike the situation in which Grainier found himself.

This is a repeat of what I am going to say elsewhere, but I am finding TFS like enjoying a box of gourmet chocolates, with caramels to chew on and soft raspberry cremes to savor on the tongue. Galsworthy's irony is like dark chocolate with salt or the currently popular chilies or wasabi. The writing is a fine box assortment, with such a variety of tastes and flavors. Of course, not everyone likes chocolate. Not what I expected at all, but it fits.

It is fascinating to me that the much shorter Train Dreams is showing itself as compelling enough to return to each day for additional insights, despite other solid claims on time for reading. I'm coming to consider it a little gem, albeit more like those diamonds in the rough Stauer sells in National Geographic than any stone that has seen the cutting wheel. Still, carefully selected.

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments I am amazed to hear that your reading of Train Dreams has been driven by following it with The Forsyte Saga. But I can see where you're coming from – I think.

All I can say, is give me Train Dreams any day. I like my prose to be a little less laboured!

Lily (joy1) | 2456 comments Sophia wrote: "...I like my prose to be a little less laboured! ..."

Too bad we can't sit somewhere and have a glass of wine and discuss what we would each consider "less laboured" and why.

It was somewhat accident that The Forsyte Saga followed Train Dreams for me, but I certainly saw the contrast on how families occurred in each -- and from there, found myself considering the impact on an individual in either.

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Ah yes, one man's meat and another man's poison!!!

If only we had more time I'd love to talk about families in literature. But that's another topic, entirely.

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