Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Review (T2T): When the Whistle Blows by Fran Cannon Slayton

Tags: middle grade, YA, historical fiction, trains, fathers, rural

Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Around the end of World War II, the tiny town of Rowlesburg, West Virginia, is undergoing some great and affecting changes. For years and years, steam engines have been a way of life for those living in Rowlesburg, but now there are rumors of diesel engines, and being out of a job, and the town turning into a ghost.

In the midst of this all is Jimmy Cannon, a typical boy who wants to have fun with his friends and have his father get off his back. Jimmy’s father wants him to escape the dying Rowlesburg, but Jimmy has his heart set on working on the railroads, just like every Cannon before him. As a result, he feels like his father is always working against him. As the years pass, however, and Jimmy gets into scrapes or learns lessons, he realizes that his impenetrable father may be one of the best men he’ll ever know.


If you like historical fiction coming-of-age vignettes, you can’t do any better than Fran Cannon Slayton’s debut, WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS. While it’s not the kind of fiction I usually enjoy, the voice, characters, setting, and stories are really all delightful.

The synopsis heavily emphasizes Jimmy’s relationship with his father, but really, that theme is rather a gentle undercurrent throughout that builds into a touching ending. I enjoyed every vignette, one for every Halloween between 1943 and 1949. Each story stands strong alone and shows us what life is like for the teenaged Jimmy growing up in rural West Virginia. They’re entertaining, such as Jimmy’s friends’ Halloween mischief; they’re heartwarming, with the high school football championship game.

Death, laughter, adolescent naivety, and growth weave in and out of the prose, which is age, gender, and regionally appropriate. Indeed, Jimmy’s voice feels remarkably genuine: you will not mistake him as anyone other than a boy growing up in mid-twentieth century America, and at the same time he is completely relatable.

The development of Jimmy’s relationship with his father may have been a bit too subtle for me, given the importance the book seems to place on this pivotal relationship. It can occasionally make the vignettes feel disjointed. Overall, however, I am satisfied with the subtlety; we’re not hit over the head with news of their relationship, which allows us to understand and appreciate Jimmy and his father individually.

Like I said earlier, historical fiction is not my forte, but even so I can see Jimmy’s stories resonated with me long after I closed this book. WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS has a magical and timeless appeal, and is probably one of the most understated debut books of the year, so I encourage you to pick this up if your interest is the slightest bit piqued. You will be rewarded for doing so.

Similar Authors
Rebecca Stead (When You Reach Me)
Jacqueline Kelly (The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate)

Writing: 4/5
Characters: 3/5
Plot: 4/5

Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Cover discussion: 3 out of 5 - Not really something that would attract teens, I don't think, which is kind of interesting, as the book will probably appeal best to adults (especially those with kids) and older teens. After reading the book, though, the cover has grown on me. It's so appropriate for the mood and time period of the book.

Philomel / June 11, 2009 / Hardcover / $16.99

Thank you, Fran, for providing me with a copy for review!

This review is part of a Traveling to Teens tour. For more information, check out the T2T Weebly.


  1. This book isn't something I would normally enjoy reading, but I did enjoy reading your review! :)

  2. Nice review. I really like historical fiction, so I'll check this out.

  3. Sounds like something I'd enjoy. Thanks.


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