It is the day of Robert Kennedy's funeral, and people along the mid-Atlantic are preparing to view the train carrying his body from New York to Washington, DC. The Train of Small Mercies provides glimpses of what is happening to some of those people, using the device of telling a story from each state along the route. In New York, college student Lionel is preparing for the first day of his summer job working on the train--by coincidence the very train carrying Kennedy's body. Lionel's mind is occupied with his girlfriend, who has just told him she is pregnant, and he can barely focus on the instructions provided by the older black men who have worked the trains for decades. At the other end of the line, in Washington, Irish immigrant nanny Maeve's job interview with the Kennedy family has been postponed, and she relies on the concierge at her hotel--the first African American man to hold the job--to advise her what to do. Between the two ends of the journey, a woman sneaks away from her husband, who disliked RFK, to see the train, but her daughter is injured, casting an even greater pall over the day. A boy just returned from being kidnapped by his father reenacts the shooting with his friends. A Vietnam vet who lost a leg in combat is interviewed by an old classmate, now an intern at the paper, about his experiences, as his family hovers protectively nearby. And a suburban man who has just gotten an above-ground pool is disappointed that his first pool party does not go as planned. Each story is visited numerous times, though equal attention is not directed to the six.
Rowell's book was inspired by a collection of photographs of the funeral train and it has the feel of a series of snapshots--quick glimpses into lives touched by the historic event. Rowell also does a good job of capturing the turmoil of the time--Washington, DC, is a scary and violent city; race relations are troubled, as are gender relations; Vietnam divides the nation; the nation is in a state of shocked grief following the assassinations of Dr. King and Senator Kennedy. The snapshot quality of the book also accounts for its less satisfying aspects, as none of the stories are resolved in any way. While I understand that resolving them would not have been in keeping with the novel's structure, I still found the lack of resolution frustrating.
On a side note, I had my own experience with the RFK funeral. My family arrived in Washington, DC, on the day of the funeral, and our hotel room had been given away to press (I guess reservations didn't mean too much then). We found a motel in Arlington. The next day we went over to Arlington National Cemetery and saw some members of the Kennedy family visiting the grave. Days later at a White House ceremony, there was no acknowledgment of the recent tragedy (at least that I remember, although the event has a surreal quality in my memory, so I'm not sure I really remember much).