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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Books and Trains: Three Memories

I ducked into an independent bookstore in Roseville, Michigan this week, en route to the airport after a day at the middle schools in nearby Grosse Pointe, and after hunting around for something good to read on the plane I decided on Jim Lehrer’s Super. The novel’s cover shows the speeding Super Chief, the old Santa Fe Railway's streamlined flagship that was, Lehrer writes, “America’s most luxurious all-sleeper train.” His story unfolds on board in 1956, en route from Chicago to LA. And by midnight, when our cramped US Air jet landed in Burlington, Vermont, I had read the whole novel — and I’d been remembering train journeys that blended with other books in my past.

I was reading something, though I can’t remember what, the night in 1973 when, as a college kid spending my junior year in Vienna, I was on an overnight express that had crossed, late at night, from Holland into West Germany. I had a couchette, a padded bench of a berth that hung from the compartment wall, one of four in two facing rows — and I was on the top berth reading as two older passengers began trying hard, down on the passenger seats, to help an older woman understand how much she needed to pay the conductor for her ticket.

The passengers were Dutch, but the conductor was German — and as the older woman grew more flustered and anxious, the others sought to explain that she needed a certain number of Reichsmarks. How many Reichsmarks? She was confused; she opened her purse. Were these many Reichsmarks enough? She still wasn’t sure — and I, my book laid down, just watching and listening now, was mesmerised.

It was as if we’d been transported into some train-based thriller from the Second World War. Because, of course, the bills that you used in the postwar Federal Republic of Germany — in West Germany — were Deutschmarks. It had been almost 30 years since people, traveling from occupied Holland into Nazi Germany and needing to pay for a ticket, had last counted out Reichsmarks, the currency of the Third Reich.

A year and a half later, having graduated from college, I had decided that someone who wanted to write needed to see more of the world, so I was on the Orient Express. I had hopped on the great train — on which, of course, Agatha Christie set her most famous mystery, 1934's Murder on the Orient Express — in Nis, southernmost city of the old Yugoslavia (now in Serbia). It had started to snow and I was tired of hitchhiking. All that night we had tracked across Bulgaria, and in the morning we'd crossed into the European part of Turkey, en route to Istanbul.

In my compartment I had met a bearded, bearlike American in his twenties. He had traveled, on an earlier adventure, as far East as Kabul; now he was going to a kibbutz in Israel, and I was headed for Kathmandu. We had talked through of the night, and as we looked out at Turkey in the morning he gave me some advice. “Now you’re in the East,” he said. “You need to trust your first impressions.

"You’re going to meet a lot of people," the guy explained, "and some of them will try to get you to go with them, do business with them, whatever. A lot of the people you meet will be good people — but if your first instinct is not to trust someone, then don’t. Someone who’s good can always talk you past your first impression; but that feeling you get when you first meeting someone will always be true. Rely on it and it'll never steer you wrong.”

In the weeks and months ahead, I would try that advice many times. I met lots of people who deserved trust, along with some who wanted to take advantage; and I never got into a situation where trusting my first impressions turned out to be a mistake. Not even once.

My third and last book-connected train memory is from later in that trip, when I took an overnight from Delhi to Patna in India’s teeming Ganges Basin. I had a sleeping bench, very similar to the European couchettes, though this time the compartment had three rows on each side, going up the wall. I was way up top again, deep into Volume One of the Penguin paperback edition of War and Peace. I read until I was so exhausted I could finally sleep, with the second-class compartment below me jammed with quietly jostling riders and the paperback jammed underneath my folded legs. In the morning, when I woke up, War and Peace, Volume One, was gone.

The people who rode second-class train carriages in India then were hungry for English books. They probably still are. And I’ve always hoped that whoever slipped my book out so skillfully from beneath me wanted not to sell it, but to read it it. And if he did ... then I’ve also hoped that somehow, somewhere, he managed to find Volume Two.

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