8/01/2012

Blasts From The Past: Train For Tiger Lily, by Louise Riley



TRAIN FOR TIGER LILY by Louise Riley (Viking Books, 1954)

TRAIN FOR TIGER LILY is a 1954 children’s fantasy written by Louise Riley, a librarian in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

I first read TFTL in grade school in the early 1960’s.  In the intervening years, I’d forgotten the title and author, but still remembered elements of the plot as being unusual enough that I’ve made several attempts to identify the book.  My Google-fu finally got good enough to recently pinpoint the book and re-read it via an Inter-Library Loan request.  (Thank you, Murray State University, for keeping a sixty-year old book still available in your stacks.)

The plot:  One car of a train making a days-long trip across the Canadian plains is occupied by five children of various ages.  Mostly pre-teens; brother and sister Duncan and Cathy, and siblings Mark and Victoria and their younger brother Benjie.  They waken from a night of travelling to find their sleeping car sitting in the middle of… nowhere, apparently, with the countryside stretching away on all sides and only a signpost reading “Tiger Lily”.  Except for a dining car and a railcar holding Duncan’s prize calf Prince Rupert and its watchdog McRoberts, the rest of the train has vanished.

The person behind this is the train’s porter, Augustus (“Gus”) P. Wallingford.  Gus isn’t just a porter, he’s a wizard (Master of Magic, Second Class).  The lack of any other adults in the children’s railcar makes it possible for to spend three days in Tiger Lily, where the initial placid appearance doesn’t rule out adventures and dangers.

Gus is also a Negro, as virtually all train porters were when the book was written.  This was unusual for a children’s book in the mid-20th century, enough so that even at age 10 or 11, when I first read TFTL, that fact stood out to me.  Black characters in children’s books, by and large, either didn’t exist at all, were such minor characters they barely counted, or were negatively stereotyped.

Gus is intelligent, friendly, and responsible.  If he’s led the children to a place where they might face danger, he also helps protect them and advises how to deal with it.

The major fantasy element of the story comes when Seven U O’Leary, a decrepit broken-down old cowboy on a decrepit broken-down old horse, comes onto the scene.  Seven U’s magic horsehair belt, which had kept him and his horse Lightning young and vigorous, has been stolen by a witch.  Helping Seven U recover the belt before their three days in Tiger Lily expires leads the children into risk.

(Shape-shifting is also involved.  The youngest boy, Benjie, finds being a duck so much fun his older sister is afraid he won’t change back.)

Louise Riley’s writing is aimed squarely at about a mid-elementary school audience.  (I was in 3rd or 4th grade when I first read it.)  The writing and vocabulary is kept at an appropriate level.  And while the children find themselves at risk, it’s never portrayed in such a manner as to overly frighten or alarm the book’s younger audience.

(For comparison and contrast, two other books about young people discovering the existence of magic and how to use it are Diane Duane’s SO YOU WANT TO BE A WIZARD, aimed at young teens, and Libba Bray’s A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY for older teens, both of which go into situations and experiences that are much darker and more troubling.)

Ms. Riley wrote a small number of other books, including at least one that also features the porter/magician Gus.  After re-reading TFTL, I did some research and contacted Ms. Riley’s nephew, who appears to have the rights to her literary estate, suggesting that with so many older books now being re-issued as e-books, it might be worthwhile to make Ms. Riley’s books available again in that format.  He seemed receptive to that idea, and we’ll see if there’s further progress along that path.

1 comment:

Will Shetterly said...

I don't remember that one, so I may not have read it, but you make me want to.