Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Garfield's Train: Personal Presidential History

Garfield’s Train, by Feather Schwartz Foster, brings an entertaining story, rooted in the author’s expertise --U.S. Presidents. About President Garfield (1881), who was assassinated during the summer of his first term, the story is told in an interesting, informal manner, as a story-within-a-story.

Katharine Louise (“Kate”) is a modern-day 79-year-old woman, relating the story of a train trip with her maternal grandmother (Louise Dunbar) when she was 23 in 1947. She accompanies her grandmother to see a dying friend, Mollie Brown. During the trip to California, and again on the return trip, Gran tells the story of her own upbringing and relationship with her friend Mollie Brown during the late 1870s and early 1880s in New Jersey. The Dunbar family live year-round in Long Branch, New Jersey, a summer vacation home to the many famous and wealthy, including the Garfield family. As Gran relates, Long Branch was the "Gilded Strand" of the Gilded Age.

We soon learn that Mollie Brown’s maiden name was Garfield, and that she was the daughter of President Garfield. From this point, the story becomes even more exciting. Through the double first-person narrative, we get to know the various members of the Dunbar family and some details about the Garfield family. An early section of the book, in which Gran names off all the various relatives in the Dunbar family tree, is confusing and overwhelming—a visual family tree diagram would help. After a while, though, it becomes clear that only a few of the many named characters are relevant to the story; the reader can focus on that part rather than try to keep up with the larger Dunbar family

As with Foster’s previous book, First Ladies, this book includes excellent research and attention to historical details, including the political power structure of the day. Other famous characters have a part, including former President Grant and even Susan B. Anthony. Some narrative parts, where Louise tells what she was aware of at age 13, seem rather unrealistic for the average girl of that age to recall – especially after “Gran’s” self-admission that she really had not been that knowledgeable of politics (and Kate notes the contradiction, too!). Yet the author also skillfully inserts “notes” sections with additional material at various places: material that Kate gathered, either in 1947 or more recently.

Garfield’s Train is another entertaining and educational historical novel from Feather Schwartz Foster. The historical material is presented in a fun way, nothing like a dry history textbook, in a rather short novel (226 pages) that can be read quickly -or not so quickly-- and enjoyed by all. The historical insights and trivia bring the period alive--in all its glamour as well as political dirt-- to remind us also how little some things have changed.

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