In June 1968, up to 2 million Americans—some weeping, some saluting, others with hand-drawn signs—lined the railroad tracks between Manhattan and DC to glimpse Robert F. Kennedy’s coffin three days after the presidential candidate was murdered in an LA hotel. To onlookers, seeing the train was like watching Charon, the ferryman from Greek mythology, deliver a fallen god across the River Styx, only this time the destination was Arlington National Cemetery. In The Train of Small Mercies, novelist David Rowell, an editor at the Washington Post Magazine, probes the heartache, hope, fear, and ambivalence that a handful of mourners—among them an Irish nanny, an aspiring reporter, and a Pullman porter—carried to and from the rails that day. One mother boils down the meaning of the procession for her daughter: “It’s going to be going really fast, and it’s not going to stop for us, but we can wave bye-bye to all the people on board, and maybe they’ll wave to us.” Though the locomotive wending through the chapters can feel at times like a narrative ploy, Rowell’s short, veracious scenes are flush with the stuff of life. In one, four youngsters await the train by reenacting, blow by blow, Kennedy’s assassination. Could there be a clearer picture of ’60s-era innocence lost?
This article appears in the December 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.