Photographs of Kennedy funeral train inspire novel

Thu Oct 20, 2011 10:49am EDT
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By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) - Women brought flowers, people fell to their knees in anguish, young mothers held babies on their hips as Robert F. Kennedy's funeral train passed. A boys' baseball team, all in uniform, stood with their caps over their hearts.

These images, in photographs taken from the train that carried Kennedy's body from New York to Washington after his June 1968 assassination, fascinated David Rowell so much that he used them as inspiration for "The Train of Small Mercies," a novel that chronicles the day of the journey through the lives of several characters drawn from the photos.

"Here are young and old, black and white, and they're standing shoulder to shoulder and this country's just been through a terrible tragedy after a string of tragedies, and yet here they are standing next to each other, neighbor to neighbor," Rowell said in a telephone interview.

"What you see in these pictures is a terrible amount of sadness and confusion -- because, if you remember, (civil rights activist) Martin Luther King was killed just two months earlier."

Rowell said that a years'-long admiration for a book of photographs by Paul Fusco, who was on the train for its June 8 journey through cities and rural areas, prompted him to turn to the pictures when he first began contemplating a novel.

The vividness of the photographs, which make a viewer feel they too are on the train, expertly captured the grief that many felt for Kennedy, a congressman and aspiring presidential candidate who fought for civil rights and was slain just after celebrating a primary election victory.

The grief was unusually public -- and affecting, he said.

"At first I just thought I'd take six pictures and just write very literally to these pictures. But it didn't really work out like that, because two pictures would come together in my head," Rowell said.   Continued...