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On the Blue Comet

Review

On the Blue Comet

written by Rosemary Wells, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline

I vividly remember the first time I saw the expansive model train layout at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Now even more extensive than when I was young, the museum's model trains stretch from coast to coast as they tell the story of American transportation in miniature. When presented with such an elaborate display, a perfectly rendered scaled-down version of daily life, who hasn't put their face right down next to the display, imagining what it would be like to shrink to HO scale, to ride the miniature trains from Grand Central to Seattle? That spirit of wonder and imagination is what fuels Rosemary Wells's fantasy novel, ON THE BLUE COMET, an ode for both a type of collecting and a type of travel rapidly becoming bygones.

Oscar Ogilvie and his father have been getting along just fine in Cairo, Illinois, ever since his mother died in a fireworks plant explosion. His dad works hard, and young Oscar does the cooking. In the evening, they both head downstairs to the lovingly constructed model train layout Oscar's dad has built there. With each birthday, each bonus at work, the train collection grows.

That is, until the 1929 stock market crash hits. All of a sudden, Oscar's dad is out of a job, headed to California to see if he can find work there. They've sold the trains to a banker downtown. Foisted off on his busybody aunt while his dad is away, missing him and their favorite pastime, Oscar is miserable. The only thing that keeps him going is his new friendship with a kindly stranger who tutors him in his schoolwork, explains tricky concepts of negative velocity and "time pockets," and later helps him get into the bank where his old model train layout is now a featured holiday display.

When disaster strikes the bank at Christmastime, Oscar magically finds himself transported onto one of those very same model trains and into one of those tricky time pockets. Before he knows it, he's in Los Angeles --- and 10 years in the future, in 1941. It's a very different world --- the country is at war, the Depression is a raw but increasingly distant memory --- and Oscar, now an 11-year-old trapped in the body of a 21-year-old, is in danger of getting drafted for the army. All he wants to do is find his father, turn back time, and go back to Cairo where he belongs.

Rosemary Wells's novel is an old-fashioned affair, beautifully printed and designed, the kind of book likely to find its way beneath many Christmas trees this holiday season. Bagram Ibatoulline's full-color acrylic paintings evoke Norman Rockwell and further contribute to the book's vintage design and nostalgic appeal.

Along Oscar's journey, he meets many famous characters from the 1930s and 1940s, including Ronald Reagan, Alfred Hitchcock, Nelson Rockefeller and Joe Kennedy. Some of these historical figures are never identified by name (Reagan is referred to only as "Dutch," for example), which begs the question of whether younger readers will even recognize or appreciate these historical allusions. But these references, as well as the discussions of historical events, make ON THE BLUE COMET a perfect book for parents (or grandparents) to read for and with children, providing their own context and understanding of history even as everyone involves loses themselves in an old-fashioned fantasy story.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on September 28, 2010

On the Blue Comet
written by Rosemary Wells, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline

  • Publication Date: September 11, 2012
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Candlewick
  • ISBN-10: 0763658154
  • ISBN-13: 9780763658151