Off the Tracks: A Meditation on Train Journeys by Pamela Mulloy

Despite the lack of trains in many of our (North American) daily lives, trains still have a hold over most of the people I know — from watching Thomas the Tank Engine fervently as kids to eagerly texting about trains we saw on our morning commutes — the romance of train travel has never left our minds, even long after it stopped being such a vital part of travel for the average person. Off the Tracks: a Meditation on Train Journeys in a Time of No Travel by Pamela Mulloy is a love letter to these trains, from a North American perspective. Mulloy has written a collection of interconnected essays on her own train journeys and how they have influenced her life. The journeys range from heartbreaking to cozy, as she takes advantage of the early COVID-19 pandemic and the trap of quarantine to send her mind into the trips of her past.

I was especially delighted by this collection because Mulloy sets it up with her annual trip by train from Kingston, Ontario to Moncton, New Brunswick — her hometown. The Via Rail line running from Montreal to Halifax, with stops in several places, including Moncton, is called the Ocean. It’s also a train line I know fairly well, as I’m from Moncton, and during my years living in Miramichi, took the train to Moncton and Halifax, as well as back home to Miramichi. Mulloy’s memories of the Ocean launched me back into my own travels on it, and I was glued to her framing journey, able to picture exactly where she was once she got to New Brunswick.

This is a love letter to train travel, but it’s also aware of the cost train travel has wrought upon so many communities.

But this book is not all fuzzy nostalgia. Mulloy examines the history of train travel through the role trains and railway lines played in settler colonialism in North America, the role trains played in World War II, and even the history of different parts of the train, from the mechanics of it to the racist history of Black men serving as porters, all known as George on the train. (For an excellent novel about porters and the conditions they endured, The Sleeping Car Porter by Suzette Mayr is another great choice.) Mulloy is only able to scratch the surface of these issues in her slim work here, but they’re weighty enough to encourage you to go read more. This is a love letter to train travel, but it’s also aware of the cost train travel has wrought upon so many communities.

Off the Tracks is doing a lot, but never feels overstuffed. Instead, Mulloy invites us to wander her memories and her learning in order to escape from the COVID days. It’s remarkable she was able to pull something meaningful and interesting from that exercise.

Pamela Mulloy is the author of two novels, including As Little As Nothing (2022). She is the editor of the New Quarterly and director of the Wild Writers Literary Festival. She has lived in the UK, Poland, and the US. She now lives in Kitchener, Ontario.

Publisher: ECW Press (April 30, 2024)
Paperback 5″ x 8″ | 192 pages
ISBN: 9781770417298

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Alison Manley has ricocheted between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia for most of her life. Now in Halifax, Nova Scotia, she is the Cataloguing and Metadata Librarian at Saint Mary's University. Her past life includes a long stint as a hospital librarian on the banks of the mighty Miramichi River. She has an honours BA in political science and English from St. Francis Xavier University, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. While she's adamant that her love of reading has nothing to do with her work, her ability to consume large amounts of information very quickly sure is helpful. She is often identified by her very red lipstick, and lives with her partner Brett and cat, Toasted Marshmallow.