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When the Whistle Blows by Fran Cannon Slayton

December 28, 2009

Today I am reviewing another 2k9 classmate’s book, When the Whistle Blows by Fran Cannon Slayton. I had the opportunity to host Fran for the Louisiana Book Festival in October of 2009 and it struck me that she is as comfortable and easygoing as her writing. Her book reads easy, like you’re sipping tea in a rocking chair on the front porch, but she packs a powerful story behind that casual, southern charm.

Jimmy Cannon grows up in Rowlesburg, West Virginia in the 1940’s, and the story visits him every year on Halloween. We get to watch his growth from young teenager to young man as he and his friends make their way through high school in a small, railroading town. They play pranks, endure school, and compete in football championships. Jimmy’s eyes are set on the day he can work on the big steam engines – like his father and brothers before him – but his father wants a better life for Jimmy. The balance of the story and Jimmy’s self discovery revolve around this conflict. He grows to see himself and his father in a new light with each passing year.

Things to like about this story: It’s funny, well written, and provides a great sense of time and place without being overly nostalgic. Fran’s use of language and her profound insight are superb. The characters are so real – and struggle through their shortcomings to live out relationships with each other. The duel antagonism and love portrayed by Jimmy and his father will stay with you for a long time. And did I say it was funny? It is – which isn’t easy to pull off in this type of book.

Audience Recommendations: independent reading for any middle schooler, classroom reading in middle school literature or history, adults, intergenerational book clubs.

Fran has crafted an exquisite story with cross-generational appeal. It should stand the test of time and will help create a conversational bridge between grandparents and grandchildren.

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