A runaway fights injustice on a train ride from New Orleans to Chicago.
It’s 1923, and 13-year-old Bobby Lee Claremont, a white boy, has cleaned out the poor box of the Catholic orphanage where he lives and made his escape north, hoping to take up with Chicago’s gangs and live a life of criminal ease. The train is also carrying the body of a nightclub owner who died under mysterious circumstances, as well as the man’s widow and baby boy. Bobby Lee is drawn to the widow, who reminds him of his own single mother. However, she’s guarded by a set of toughs, and it turns out that the leader of a black jazz orchestra traveling in the colored coaches has ties to her as well. Bobby sets out to unravel the mystery as the train chugs north. Astonishingly—and unbelievably—he accomplishes this in the 24-hour journey, mostly due to the willingness of every other character to spill secrets to an adolescent boy. It’s far more talk than action, and it’s not easy to keep the hired-muscle characters or the story straight. Two young black boys have roles in the plot, and Mobley tackles Jim Crow laws and racial passing straightforwardly, although somewhat anachronistically. (Black strangers are more open and accepting of Bobby Lee than feels accurate.)
This book should have done less with its plot and more with its heart; interesting avenues remain unexplored. (Historical fiction. 9-13)