The Day the Whistles Cried

This afternoon, I read Betsy Thorpe’s The Day the Whistles Cried, which is about the Dutchman’s Curve accident, which was the worst train accident in history. It’s a quick read and really interesting. It’s arranged kind of like an episode of Law & Order. The first half is all about figuring out what happened and the second half is a courtroom drama about who’s to blame.

I’m thinking a lot about how to write about history in a way that’s interesting for people who aren’t scholars, so I was paying special attention to how Thorpe handled it. She takes a narrative approach, where she’s telling you the best story she can based on the facts she knows. And she seems to have run down just about every fact a person can still get his or her hands on this many years after the fact. I cried. I found it really moving and effective.

I think she also does a really good job of bringing up a lot of issues that you need to know if you want to do more research into the accident without overwhelming you if you don’t care to know more than she shares with you. I mean, you come away with a pretty thorough understanding of how trains in the South were set up to be death traps for black people and how black people in Nashville were taking huge risks to get that changed. So, if you want to know more, you know there’s meat on that particular bone and can go look.

I want to say that Thorpe’s book is an excellent place to start, but I’m afraid it sounds like an insult and I really mean it as a compliment. I think her volume is the place you should start if you want to learn about it. For some folks, this book will definitely be enough–it’s very thorough–and for others, Thorpe’s laid out clear paths to other interesting topics.

4 thoughts on “The Day the Whistles Cried

  1. I wonder what you think of Erik Larson’s popular histories? I loved reading “Isaac’s Storm”, but then felt a little betrayed at the end to realize how much he’d dramatized. It wasn’t clear what came out of research and what came out of his imagination. I still read him, but think of the books as novels instead of non fiction.

  2. That’s something I think Thorpe does pretty well, though I’m not quite sure how she does it. The stuff she’s dramatized is really obviously dramatized and the stuff that’s fact is, to me, clearly fact. I think part of it is that, even though you can tell she really sympathizes with the men responsible, she doesn’t shade the narrative to lessen their responsibility. No matter how bad she feels for these folks, the facts are that somehow they missed that the train they hit had not passed them in the train yard.

  3. O.C.—-I am a huge fan of Erik Larson. I read his “Devil in the White City” along with Capote’s “In Cold Blood” three or four times while writing “The Day the Whistles Cried.” I met him at the Nashville Library during that time. He was in town promoting “In the Garden of Beasts.” I asked him about his use of constructed dialogue in his books. Although he clearly didn’t like my question, he answered it anyway. He told me that he didn’t construct dialogue , that anything that appears in quotes in his books, is a quote that can be honestly attributed to that person. That is not the case with my book. I dramatize many of the facts that came out of my research, in order to tell the greater story of the times, and to bring humanity to the people killed, or harmed, in the train wreck. I disclose that fact in a “Note on Method” in the front matter of the book.

    Betsy—What you wrote, “though you can tell she really sympathizes with the men responsible, she doesn’t shade the narrative to lessen their responsibility. No matter how bad she feels for these folks.” is a true statement. When I first started researching the train wreck I had hopes of clearing the name of “The Blunderer.” I was sad when I realized that was not possible. In fact it made me feel so bad that on the day that my book released–the 96th anniversary of the train wreck–I visited the graves of Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy and apologized to the both of them

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