THE SILVER ARROW
By Lev Grossman
It is Kate’s 11th birthday, and what she wants more than anything else in the world is to feel special and necessary. To a kid in the mundane 21st century — her parents are workaholics, and she’s bored with “kid things” and “real life” — this is a tall order, at least until her crazy Uncle Herbert shows up with an unusual birthday present loaded on a double-wide flatbed truck: the Silver Arrow, a steam train (or at least its engine and a coal car), which he drops onto tracks he’s set up in the backyard, leading somewhere unknowable.
Similar to Norton Juster’s phantom tollbooth, this mysterious mode of transport is the perfect vehicle for a heroine’s aspirations. When Kate’s parents object to train tracks where their shade garden was supposed to go, she recalls her personal hero, the computer programmer Grace Hopper, saying that “sometimes it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.”
She and her younger brother, Tom, clamber on board and assume the role of conductors on a trip that seems easy at first — when they reach a rail yard they’re encouraged to ask for whatever they want and need: cars containing books, candy, a swimming pool, in addition to passenger, dining and sleeping cars. (Only Tom’s requests for swords, guns and electronics go unheeded.) But soon they’re traveling through redwood forests, over desert tundras and deep beneath the sea.
Kate has newfound responsibility. It’s not just about polishing the brass fittings; as conductor, she must find fuel when it runs low, quell disputes between passengers (more on who they are later) and face her own mortality. She once wished for a zombie apocalypse or alien invasion so she could “triumph against all the odds and save everybody.” Now she understands adulthood’s burdens.
The same delightful type of genre deconstruction that animates Grossman’s young adult “Magicians” trilogy is at work in “The Silver Arrow.” “He didn’t really say blazes, but you can’t put the word he did say in a book for children,” is the narrator’s cheeky aside after Kate’s father swears at Uncle Herbert. The book for children in which we find this aside is an eco-fable that addresses a serious global crisis (climate change, though the term is never used) with whimsy: It’s easier to get kids interested in theoretical scientific concepts if you charm them with talking animals. Which brings us to those passengers.
The travelers Kate’s train collects are displaced wild creatures waiting to be relocated somewhere safe. Many are endangered or have been driven out of their habitats: a fishing cat whose mangrove swamp was drained to build a hotel, a white-bellied heron whose river was dammed to make a power plant, a half-drowned polar bear whose ice platform has all but melted. As weeks pass, these anthropomorphic refugees educate the children on widespread planetary damage done by humans. Kate feels deep shame on behalf of her species, and yet the passengers do not despise her or humanity. “The world has lost its old balance, but it’s not too late. It could still find a new one,” the heron tells her.
Like Grossman’s “Magicians” protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, Kate possesses both a gnawing dissatisfaction with the real world and a romantic notion of how it should be. But while in “The Magicians” magic provides unhappy people with a way out, in “The Silver Arrow” it shows Kate she need not escape into a fantasy world when there’s more rewarding work to be done in this one than she’d ever imagined. The train might be extraordinary, but Kate is a normal girl with a job to do. It may not involve battling a zombie apocalypse, but it’s pretty close.