"Small World" Reviewed by Bill Winkler
Sixty-three-year-old Walter Bergen mounted the cab of Amtrak’s “Coast Starlight” at first light to take command of the final leg of the train’s 35-hour trip from Los Angeles to Seattle.
As the train proceeded northward through Oregon it boarded a number of passengers: Malik Flowers and his mother, on their way to an invitational basketball game in Seattle, where Malik would compete against the top high school talent in the western half of the country as dozens of major college recruiters looked on; Laila Tully, trying to escape an abusive relationship; the Chen-Murphys, seeking big city adventure after relocating from San Francisco to rural Oregon. These lives, and a host of others, would be changed in an instant as the train, speeding through lowering weather in a snowstorm, struck a large tree fallen across the tracks.
Evison tracks the lives of these characters, their motivations for being on the train, and the progression of their lives after the accident. But he also introduces us to their 19th century forebears, all marginalized members of society; a Native American, a Chinese immigrant, a fugitive slave, and the orphaned twins of an impoverished Irish widow, newly arrived in America.
Evison manages, through a rapid succession of pithy chapters, to give each of these characters color and depth. The reader will not need to keep notes; each of these characters stands firmly on their own.
“Small World” is Jonathan Evison’s seventh novel in a decade and a half of published works. Two of his previous novels have been pulled from public school libraries in Texas and Virginia over rumored (and unfounded) accusations that they promoted pedophilia, an accusation Evison stoutly denies, telling the complainants to “Read the book or sit down.”
This is a novel that will keep the reader moving briskly through the pages. It leaps rapidly, but not bewilderingly, from character to character and century to century. It would be an appealing book to read while one is traveling. The chapters are brief enough that one can lay the book down without interrupting its continuity and pick it up when the next reading opportunity presents itself.