By the time the train reached the small farming town of Denison, Iowa, in the fall of 2002, all that remained were bones and clothes. A grain elevator worker's grisly discovery of the bodies of 11 immigrant stowaways opens the first gripping chapter of Colleen Bradford Krantz's nonfiction book, "Train to Nowhere."
"Something had caught his eye," Krantz writes, describing the worker methodically walking atop the empty train, opening each car's hatches and peering into the dark compartments. "He stared, struggling with disbelief about what he thought he saw. But he knew with certainty now: it was a skull."
From there, the book rewinds to tell the story in classic narrative fashion of how 11 stowaways paid smugglers to sneak them across the Mexico-U.S. border and onto the Texas train months earlier. It details how they planned their crossings and why the smugglers failed to set them free as planned.
Krantz, a former reporter for major newspapers in Missouri, Wisconsin and Iowa, interviewed survivors making the same trip in another train car, relatives of the deceased, immigration investigators and even experts on heatstroke to reconstruct what is likely to have happened inside the sweltering death chamber. She used documents and interviews to offer various perspectives on the ill-fated trip.
The book, which reads mostly like a novel, tries almost too hard not to take sides in the immigration debate. (The book serves as a starting point for a documentary that Krantz co-produced.) Most of the book lets immigration policy questions unfold with the natural drama of the story. But a single chapter near the end veers into a textbook-like lesson.
That aside, "Train to Nowhere" provides a quick and fascinating glimpse into the underground world of immigrant smuggling that's worth the read.