An affable CBC Radio personality boards a Via Rail train and sets off across the country, microphone in hand. Blend a few train sounds with some conversations with eccentric people and you’ve got an interesting five or 10 minutes of summer radio – pure This Morning fare.
In Rolling Home, Tom Allen, the genial host of CBC Radio’s Music and Company, tries to force a radio documentary into a full-length memoir with only limited success. He boards a train in Halifax with his wife and two young kids, heads west, and works hard to keep the book on the rails with his own ruminations, smatterings of history, and odd, occasionally touching portraits of the people he meets along the way.
Unfortunately, there’s not much here we haven’t heard before. Anxious departures, exhausted arrivals, big sunsets, tall trestles. Also rail barons, mistreated Chinese workers, stoic kindnesses of black porters, scandalous cutbacks. To his credit, Allen gets at the elusive qualities of “railroaders,” the dedicated employees who follow an unwritten code of service, like the engineer who stops the train so the cook can throw table scraps to a pair of dogs who amble up to the track. He also captures the nearly lost world of certain communities in northern Manitoba and the B.C. interior, for whom the train isn’t a tourist frivolity but a necessary means of getting around.
Such a loosely structured book can only hold together through the precision and interest of the narrative voice. Allen’s style is easygoing, but there are just too many sentences that don’t compute: “It was nearing midnight and the whole car was so quiet I could almost hear it breathing.” Come again?
Rolling Home seems doomed to embody its defining premise – that the jostling and grungy reality of train travel rarely measures up to the glamorous theory. The reader, like Allen’s train traveller, arrives less than refreshed.