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.
“I’d take some details from this picture and some details from that, or some plot possibilities, or (it would) give me some notions of a character, or quiet tension... Ultimately it was all works of imagination, but I was trying to let the seeds of the stories come from the photographs, and they did.”
His book follows the lives of six people as they try to see the train pass, ranging from a young Irish woman who’d been scheduled to be interviewed by the Kennedy family as a nanny to a newly disabled Vietnam veteran. Only one wasn’t inspired by a picture — Lionel, a young black train porter working his first day on the job.
“If I had a character in Pennsylvania and one in New Jersey and one in Delaware, those characters were only going to be able to speak about what was right in front of them. But if I had a character on the train, (they) could look out the window and see it, mile after mile and hour after hour,” Rowell said.
“I wanted to do justice to the book’s full scope and beauty in that way.”
To understand why people would go out and stand out in the hot sun for hours, waiting, Rowell — who is too young to remember Kennedy himself — said he first had to understand Kennedy’s overall appeal, which he termed a combination of unusual honesty and a willingness to fight for groups that had been left behind, such as African Americans.
“He would say things that if you were running for president today, that would be the end of you right then and there. You would never have somebody today who would say ‘I’m really disappointed in my country’ the way he did,” Rowell said.
In addition, he maintains, 1968 — a year in which both Kennedy and King were killed, U.S. troops were dying in Vietnam and U.S. cities erupted in riots — still has things to teach us, despite the vastly different times in which we live.
“At the time ... there was real reason to think that the country might fall into a kind of chaos it might not recover from. That’s a reality we don’t have today,” he said.
“At a very basic level, you have to look it and see, we were able to deal with the unthinkable. We were able to survive as a society.”
Editing by Paul Casciato