As Robert F. Kennedy’s somber funeral train journeys from New York to Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1968, assorted crowds gather at various points along the way to show their respect.
A fictional cast of characters with numerous hopes and dreams bring sundry tales to the mix.
For Lionel Chase, a young black man on his first day as a porter on that train, and for Jamie West, a disabled Vietnam vet, home from that war and facing the obstacles of his damaged life, the journey of the train seems especially significant. Other characters whose lives do not intersect with these, and whose only connection seems to be their quest to find something inspirational about the train journey, include a young Irish girl who had hoped to earn a nanny position in the Kennedy household; a woman who spirits her young daughter away with her to watch, spinning lies to her disapproving family to cover her absence; and a sixth grade boy, recently “kidnapped” by his father, who joins his friends to “reenact” the assassination near the train tracks during their wait.
Because of an accident early in the journey, however, the train is delayed by four hours. As the anxiety increases, the tension builds. In the interim, the characters’ stories are intensified, with numerous mishaps, misadventures, and opportunities to showcase their individual searches.
Themes of hope, fear, and journeys weave their way into The Train of Small Mercies, creating a melodramatic backdrop for this story of life in the 1960s. With the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, and the rift amongst the American people over numerous philosophical differences, this tale is served up elegantly and profoundly. We see ordinary people setting aside their differences on this one day, and how the day plays out for each of them will inform the rest of their lives.
Alternating between the characters, we also notice the dramatic effects of the day on each, while feeling some of the emotions wrought from the experience. In the end, none of the characters intersected, nor did the stories actually bring about any major conclusions. Instead, the tale showed how one day could create subtle changes in individual lives when set against a larger drama.