Novellas in November Review: Train Dreams: A Novella by Denis Johnson

My Interest

The cover was what attracted me–I saw it and thought it was a print by my Great Uncle, artist Edwin Fulwider. When I read the story was set in Idaho–where Ed worked in the summers and late lived in retirement near Bayview, right on Lake Pend Oreille I was certain. Ok, I was wrong, but below you can get an idea of WHY I thought so. The painting I was recalling be in a private collection for I could not find an image via Google of it. Sadly, that part of Idaho was first invaded by Neo-Nazis (remember Ruby Ridge?) and then tourists. Now it is unrecognizable as the summer artists’ colony Indiana University/Stanford University David Star Jordan helped found [More about him in another post–he’s currently a non-person due to the new book Why Fish Don’t Exist).

The Story

“All his life Robert Grainier would remember vividly the burned valley at sundown, the most dreamlike business he’d ever witnessed waking—the brilliant pastels of the last light overhead, some clouds high and white, catching daylight from beyond the valley, others ribbed and gray and pink, the lowest of them rubbing the peaks of Bussard and Queen mountains; and beneath this wondrous sky the black valley, utterly still, the train moving through it making a great noise but unable to wake this dead world.” (Train Dreams)

Every man laborer Robert Gainer lives a typical Northern Idaho life at the start of the 20th Century. Dumped? Orphaned? He does not know, but was raised with cousins and considered an aunt and uncle his “parents.” His early memory is of being on a train with a tag upon which was written his ultimate destination. His life is cruel in the way so many lives were cruel before social safety nets. The place he lands in is a raw, mining area near Sandpoint in the panhandle. Life continues to be cruel, but he takes it in his stride. He has experiences–some dreams as he goes through his very ordinary existence.

My Thoughts

I’ve made that sound very gloomy, yet it IS somehow a beautiful book. There is one scene I could have lived without, but even it was so carefully told I could let it go. Times were different. Many people had no reason to expect more than Bob Gainer found in life. Johnson’s prose is superb.  The audiobook performance was worthy of this fine writing. At 2.25 hours anyone can find time to listen and enjoy this little marvel of a novella.

I wish Uncle Ed had been alive to enjoy this with me. He would have marveled at it. It so perfectly captures the feel of old-time Panhandle life.

Train Dreams: A Novella by Denis Johnson

Edwin L. Fulwider

Trains, mines, and Northern Idaho, all figured prominently in his body of work. Paintings, four-color lithographs, black/white lithography–all were staples in his portfolio.

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i1035 FW1.1  Edwin L. Fulwider: “Tearing Locomotive” lithograph Photo Source

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Edwin L. Fulwider: Untitled depiction of the Great Northern Railway


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Edwin L. Fulwider: The Union Pacific


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Storm, Salmon River Valley, Idaho by Edwin L. Fulwider


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