Fran Cannon Slaytons’s When the Whistle Blows is a historical fiction novel set during the 1940’s. Sounds pretty typical, right? Wrong! This is anything but your typical historical fiction book and I think that is going to work in its favor when readers pick it up.
Jimmy is the youngest son of a railroading family in rural West Virginia. He and his two older brothers long for the day that they can join their father working on the railroad. But their father swears that will happen over his dead body- the railroad is dying he says, being replaced by the diesel engine. This is a book about life in a small town, about growing up with two older brothers, about dreaming and hoping, about scheming and causing trouble.
Where this novel rises to greatness is in the format. Each chapter is a small vignette, a snapshot in time. The chapters all take place on the same day, but in different years. The story begins on All Hallow’s Eve (Jimmy’s father’s birthday) in 1943 and ends on All Hallow’s Eve 1949. You are with Jimmy through events, both big and small, that shape his life. You watch him grow and mature, as you also watch his father weaken and grow smaller. Built like short stories, some of the chapters will leave you begging for more but Slayton effortlessly weaves the years into one another.
This is a novel that I think will appeal to a variety of readers. Dormant/reluctant readers will enjoy the chapters because they are small worlds unto themselves. They aren’t intimidating, which can often be a problem with novels on grade-level for dormant/reluctant readers. Underground/gifted readers will be able to dig deep into this story and analyze the changes that occurred during this time period. (In fact, I am going to booktalk this at the end of our Holocaust/WWII book clubs because it covers the same time period so differently). And this is a book that supports developing readers, because it allows them to bite off small chunks of the story at a time. Finishing a chapter can be a satisfying experience because it’s like finishing a short story. And for me, this was a fantastic read! I read it in bits and pieces this weekend (I just couldn’t find an hour to sit down and focus!) and had no trouble stopping at the end of a chapter because I knew I would be moving a year forward when I returned to the book. Of course, I was flying through the end of it, a bit choked up! *
Fran Cannon Slayton has written a quiet novel that will surprise many readers. Her prose is powerful, yet understated. Critics, teachers, librarians, and reviewers alike will love this one. But I also think kids will love it! Jimmy gets into plenty of trouble, causes a lot more, loves sports, and even manages to get some spying done. There is a secret society, a prank gone very awry, a graveyard hangout, and trains galore. I know When the Whistle Blows is going to fly off my bookshelf when I booktalk it!
When the Whistle Blows is a book that I think we will be hearing a lot more from when award time rolls around!
*This would also make a fantastic read-aloud. Teachers could share a chapter a day and not worry about missing a day here and there. The story is very strong, but the format allows for some time off without losing the momentum.