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.