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Tom Allen's cross-country rail-riding trek, Rolling Home, is far more than a travelogue--it is a resonant and significant work of social history. The railroad has played a pivotal role in the economic and political life of Canada, but years of government neglect have taken their toll. In his introduction, Allen explains his goal: "I went looking for what was left of the institution known as the Canadian Passenger Train." That search is the core of his memoir, and the author tackles his quest with serious dedication: Over a 15-month period, he travels from the Atlantic to the Pacific, even detouring up to Hudson Bay. Not content with simply peering out the window, he interviews those who work on and in the trains, conveying a real sense of the camaraderie of this mobile fraternity. He's not afraid to take the odd side trip, too, as when he stops in Toronto for an informative close-up look at the workings of that city's TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) system.
Taking the trip with Allen proves a delight. His agile sense of humour is complemented by a strongly humanistic approach to his journey. At times he lapses into a dew-eyed view of train travel, but he's generally very realistic about the experience. For instance, on the way to Churchill, Manitoba, he notes that "the black prairie stretched out into nothingness.... I looked up, hoping for northern lights. It was cloudy." His prose enhances the view out the window. The "dirty brown hare" he spies in a train junkyard is described as having "the kind of nasty, slow-moving lope of a neighbourhood thug."
In the intro, Allen writes that "a large metal box full of humans is never a pretty thing." Happily, he undercuts that premise by demonstrating in Rolling Home that travel in such a box can indeed be a beautiful and enlightening experience. --Kerry Doole
Tom Allen, an accomplished trombonist, storyteller and broadcaster, is host of CBC Radio Twos morning show, Music & Company. Previously, he hosted Radio Twos Weekender out of Halifax, and Fresh Air, the weekend morning show for Ontario and Quebec. He has earned degrees from McGill and Yale Universities and has worked as an office temp on Wall Street and as a cook in a Mexican restaurant. His first book, Toe Rubber Blues: Midlife Thoughts on the Prospects of Aging, was published by Penguin in 1999.
After a ten-year hiatus from the trombone, Tom has begun playing again as part of a storytelling and music show with multi-instrumentalist and composer Andy Creeggan.