I have never read a story by Rosemary Wells before, but when I saw the beautiful cover of ON THE BLUE COMET and read the cover, it was a book that I had to read. I mean it's a time traveling story with trains! The story follows Oscar Ogilvie, an eleven-year-old boy living from 1931 Cairo, IL. The story actually begins a few years earlier. After the tragic death of his mother, Oscar and his father find refuge together in a Lionel toy train set that they build together. The set expands and soon takes up the Ogilvie's basement. Oscar's aunt think's Oscar's dad is insane and is wasting his money, but the father and son both know better. Then the stock market crashes in 1929 and everything changes. Oscar's dad eventually loses his job working for John Deere. They have to sell the house and all the trains. Oscar moves in with his aunt and her daughter and his dad leaves for California to try to find a job with the John Deere plant out there.
Work is scarce and Oscar's dad has a tough time at it first. Meanwhile, Oscar is working on improving his math grades at school. While his aunt and cousin go about their tutoring and speech lessons to wealthier families, Oscar stays at home. One day he meets an older man named Mr. Applegate. Mr. Applegate used to be a mathematics professor at Princeton, but his theories about Einstein and time travel were too advanced for the time. He lost his job and now travels around from place to place looking for work. Mr. Applegate helps Oscar with his math and introduces him to great literature. Mr. Applegate eventually gets hired at the local bank as a night watchman. Weeks before Christmas the bank reveals an impressive lobby display of trains, all of which used to belong to Oscar and his father. Mr. Applegate lets Oscar in to watch every night, showing him how to turn the alarm back on when he comes in. One night, Oscar forgets and two criminals show up to rob the bank. One of them doesn't want any witnesses and tries to shoot Oscar. Mr. Applegate calls out for Oscar to jump and jump he does, becoming small enough to board one of the trains on the lobby display.
However, things are more mysterious than that when Oscar discovers that he actually is traveling on a real train in real time from Chicago to Los Angeles. He needs to get back home and stop the robbers, but he's not sure how. His journey takes him not only from part of the country to the other, but from one time to another, too.
ON THE BLUE COMET is a very creative and imaginative story. The story is basically a piece of historical fiction with some sci-fi and fantasy elements tied in. The settings of the story are grounded in reality. Many of the events that take place are historical, the places are real, and the famous people Oscar meets are people he very well could have met in those situations. I liked it how Ronald Reagan is never referred to beyond his nickname of "Dutch" or that Alfred Hitchcock is only known to Oscar as Mr. H. The famous people he meets doesn't stop there because later he meets the Kennedys, J.P. Morgan, Nelson Rockefeller, Henry Mellon, Charles Merrill, and Edmund Lynch but they are all referred to by their real names.
The book is illustrated by Russian artist Bagram Ibatoulline. A few weeks ago I had never heard of the man, but a few days ago I read Kate DiCamillo's children's Christmas story, GREAT JOY and Ibatoulline drew the illustrations for that book. His pictures for ON THE BLUE COMET are quite literally astounding. They are like looking at actual paintings from a different era. These pictures go along way in helping to further set the mood, tone, and settings of the story. I also liked the occasional use of the newspaper articles and hand-written letters in the book. They help augment the visual appeal of the text as well as providing younger readers with a break for reading.
I very much enjoyed reading ON THE BLUE COMET. It's a story that older elementary kids and early middle-school students who have an interest in time travel, history, or trains will enjoy and if someone likes all three they are sure to love it.