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The Snow Train

Joseph Cummins

(Akashic Books)

"How Did This Happen? When Did We Meet?"

As adult human beings, we live in a world that is made. It is an environment that has evolved. Arguments about the nature of free will aside, our world exists because of choices that were made by someone or something. Think Robert Frost, “two roads diverged in a yellow wood . . .” and you will see what I mean. But how did we come to this conclusion? When did I begin thinking like an adult? This hasn’t always been the way it is. Think back. Remember a time when the world was simply handed to you as is. The world of childhood is a world of description. You saw things the way they were, not the way they might be, could be, should be, had been.


When I look back on recent events, I see a trail of decisions. I see a world of what ifs and what nows. I think, what if the terrorist attack on New York had happened on a Wednesday? What if my friend had been at work at 9:00 that day instead of going in at 10:00 or I had been on a subway car right under the buildings instead of a few blocks away? What if our government had made foreign policy decisions that made any sense? Might things be different right now?


The weekend after the 11th of September, I left New York City and drove across Pennsylvania to spend the weekend with my family in Ohio. I made some time for myself and tried to escape the world of unknown futures and of causality by reading Joseph Cummin’s The Snow Train. This beautifully written testimonial preyed on my freshly scraped emotions with its innocence and sense of wonder. It is a reminder of strength of simplicity in a life fraught with suffering. I realized, suddenly, that as we age, we expand our knowledge, but detract from our sense of ease. Driving over the George Washington Bridge, I wished to look at the glaringly empty skyline of Manhattan and see the void as something that simply happened. I wanted it to be unavoidable, unfixable. Waiting for the “reality” of it to sink in, I could only dwell once more on what might have stopped these events. I was wishing for the simplicity of early childhood.


In Cleveland, I spent some time with my younger cousins. The consensus reaction was to look on my obsessive television watching with humor and a certain degree of distain. It was clear that there were more important things to be concerned with than tragic events you couldn’t change anyway. Why not focus on things you can do something about? Girls or basketball for example.


But to me, the academic, this raises questions about power and about vision. Responsibility comes with adulthood and with the ability to see the larger world as connected to ones own actions. As a country, we are seeing this now and will continue to see it up close in the months to come . . . Valor and heroism are reactions that the best of us have mustered. Depression, uncertainty, anxiety are others. And in many ways, these seem to me to be luxuries. The beauty and the curse of child-like vision is that you are trapped, your power to act removed, by events that are beyond your control.


The Snow Train’s narrator is a young boy. Three years old at the outset, and later, seven years old, Robbie is afflicted with a skin disease that causes him to break out in open sores that soon form scabs over much of his body. But this is not adversity, however, it is simply how his body is. The novel, structured beautifully around his older sister’s death, is sensitive and tough. Robbie is not a particularly strong willed young man, he simply doesn’t know to mourn his condition. The Snow Train’s subject is the inward look in conflict with the outward appearance. Cummins narrative is a chronicle of a young being’s trip from self-involvement to the beauty of taking care of others.


There has been a keen interest in the construction of the notion of childhood in this country for years now. There are popular books written about it, art shows devoted to it, criticism abounds. It is not an uncomplicated notion. Innocence. simplicity. We’ve begun to learn that any traits that seem “inherent” in children should be questioned. Cummins taps this viewpoint beautifully. As a reader, I join the world of the narrator and am taken by the beauty as well as by the descriptive power of an inevitable world. And I join him when that world begins to change. Robbie’s journey from baby to boy, self to other, is enacted at the center of the book: “I realized that I knew Deanna and that she knew me. It seemed strange. Looking at her, I began to wonder again where and when and how everyone had met each other.” This is the moment that causality begins to enter the picture.


And it is the moment that Robbie realizes that his life can change. It could end, or it could get better.


What Robbie gains, and I hope we are eventually given, is the ability to rethink the events that lead up to the state of his life at this moment. We can act; and we can take broad steps towards achieving peace with ourselves and the rest of the world. It isn’t easy. As Cummins has shown us, knowledge and action can cause us to feel our stomachs grow all knotty and our mouths taste like we had put a penny in them. But reaction isn’t the same as action. The road to adulthood isn’t an easy one.


In the weeks since the event, I have found myself engaged in many levels of discourse about the tragedy. I have used the same euphemisms as my colleagues and I have volunteered time to aid those who have suffered. But I have also questioned the causes of these troubles. I have found myself embroiled in political debates and seen the angry reactions of those around me. While I wish for the simplicity and comfort that might come from being unable to see this as a tragedy with its roots in history, I have come to value the insight that The Snow Train offers about the importance of being an adult—and the strength and well-being that comes with understanding hardship.


I hope that in the weeks and months and years to come we will not forget the loss that we have suffered as a nation and as a city. But I hope, equally, that we will not succumb to the desire to see this as a sudden and unknown force that acted upon us. We need to take the lesson that Cummins’ offers us: Peace of mind can come from accepting the transition to adulthood. When we begin to think about others and about the history of our actions, we can make peace with ourselves and with the world around us.

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