Eleven year-old Oscar Ogilvie and his dad live on the Mississippi River side of Cairo, Illinois. Oscar and his father spend much of their time, after the loss of Oscar’s mother, bonding over creating elaborate layouts on which to run their Lionel model trains. The stock market crashes, Oscar’s dad loses his job, they lose their house, and Oscar’s dad travels to California looking for work, leaving Oscar to live with his Aunt Carmen, who is not nearly as fun as his dad.
While his dad is away, Oscar meets Mr. Applegate, a teacher from Texas, who has come to Illinois looking for for work after losing his teaching position. Mr. Applegate not only helps Oscar with his math but introduces Oscar to the concepts of physics, Einstein’s theories, and the idea of time travel or time pockets.
Oscar witness a horrible crime and suddenly finds himself propelled through time and traveling on a train. He heads to California to find his dad, only to find that he arrives in California at a far different time period than he left Illinois in. On the Blue Comet focuses on Oscar’s adventures as he travels through time from Illinois to California, then to New York all while trying to get back home to the time when he was eleven so that the criminals can be caught and he can, hopefully, resume his life with his father.
Overall, the premise of On the Blue Comet is an interesting one, but at times the plot seems a bit too thin and wraps up a bit too neatly, but I suppose this is to be a bit expected for the target age range (about 4th grade to middle school) for this novel. What makes On the Blue Comet an interesting read overall are the characters that Oscar encounters through this travels across country and through time. Some of these characters include Dutch, a college student studying at Eureka College in Des Moines, Iowa, Mr. H., a famous Hollywood director and producer of suspense and crime movies), several Walls Street bankers, lawyers, and investors, Mr. Joseph P. Kennedy, and one of his young sons (presumably JFK).
Wells weaves some subtle elements of history throughout the text, which makes it quite an intriguing read. Dutch, for instance, is someone famous (or becomes someone famous) but Wells never reveals the name he is more famously known as. Wells also does a good job of grounding each of the time periods that Oscar visits in not only the historical events of the specific time but also in the social mores of the time. I think that she does an excellent job of keeping true to not just the events of those time periods, but the cultural and social values of the periods. The eye for detail for each period that Wells exhibits is excellent while still leaving herself room to take some creative license for the purposes of the overall plot of her novel.
The best part of the book, however, is the relationships that Wells creates between her characters, especially those of Oscar and his dad, Oscar and Mr. Applegate, Oscar and Dutch, and Oscar and Claire. Wells creates characters and relationships that seem real and genuine; Oscar and his father share a bond over trains that you can imagine any boy and his father having; Mr. Applegate is the kind of teacher that 11 year-old boys, or any 11-year-old student would want (and parents would want for their kids), and Dutch seems to genuinely care for the strange boy he meets on the train who tells him a fascinating tale of how he ends up on the train in the first place.
3.5 stars out of 5