The passengers aboard the Amtrak Coast Starlight are all bound for Seattle. Strangers on a train, they will all be affected by an accident that will derail plans and upend lives. Jonathan Evison's "Small World" features some of the standard elements of a disaster plot: All of the characters have their own reasons for being on that train and readers learn that for some of them, the stakes are high.
There's the high school basketball phenom on his way to a tournament full of recruiters, the abused woman fleeing her husband, the couple trying to entertain their bored kids with a trip to the big city, and the engineer on his last run before retirement who is preoccupied by his troubled relationship with his daughter.
But Evison complicates and enriches the narrative by providing not only a back story for each of his passengers, but a historical explanation for why each of them are here. In many ways, his characters represent archetypical stories, but they are infused with humanity in his capable hands. While one set of stories are all taking place on the train in 2019, the others all occur in mid-19th-century America.
Among these origin stories are a Chinese immigrant who pans for gold in California, an enslaved Black man who makes his escape on a trip to Illinois, an Irish sister and brother who are orphaned when their mother dies shortly after arriving in Chicago, and a Native American woman who leaves behind the white Christian family who adopted her and journeys into the Siskiyou Mountains. Even the Coast Starlight has an origin story: the building of the transcontinental railroad will factor in these early Americans' tales.
By setting his characters in an American epic, Evison reminds readers that all of us are descended from those who endured hard times. Whether our ancestors suffered journeys on coffin ships from Asia and Europe, slave ships from Africa, or lived through the mass extermination of America's Indigenous tribes, each of us has inherited legacies passed down from survivors. It is a rich inheritance, and Evison's telling of those stories is riveting.
If there is a "national character" for Americans, he sees it as tied up with the rebelliousness that led some to make journeys across oceans and others to resist those who would kill their spirits. "More than anything else this restlessness, this yearning for something out of reach, or something missing, this incessant, unanswerable, unconquerable call that urged him, and all of them, collectively forward," that this defines the American character.
But after the events of the past two years, it is difficult not to read more into "Small World," than American origins. The characters are bound together on a train, and the crash will affect all of them. In a time when the runaway train of the pandemic seems to have done more to highlight the deep divisions in America, "Small World" feels like a reminder that not a single one of us got here alone. We have inherited strengths from the individual tales of our ancestors, but we are still deeply dependent upon each other during this moment of crisis.
Lorraine Berry is a writer and editor in Oregon.
By: Jonathan Evison.
Publisher: Dutton, 480 pages, $28.