That Night’s Train
Written by Ahmad Akbarpour
Groundwood Books/ House of Anansi Press, 2012, 94 pp.
That Night’s Train is a story about human relationships and the interrelated complications that are emotional, spatial, memorial, and literary. A five-year-old girl, Banafsheh, has unforgettably vivid memories of her late mother. Banafsheh misses her mother who was beautiful and good to her. One night, Banafasheh is taking a train with her grandmother and meets a young passenger sitting across from them. She can’t help looking at the young lady as she notices many reminders of her mother, such as the way she reads a book and the way her eyes and lips move. Of course, the lady does not quite compare to her mother according to Banafsheh’s perspectives.
In a short introduction, Banafsheh learns that the young lady is a teacher and writer who teaches in two villages on opposite ends of the train line. After a brief dialogue, they develop special affection for each other and eventually look for another chance to see each other. The young lady promises to call Banafsheh on Friday and Banafsheh promises to answer her call in return. The book goes on to tell both sides of the stories of Banfsheh and the writer-teacher. This moment creates a new relationship between two major characters and the audience as well.
What is unique and even feels exotic in a positive sense is the flow of the story that is inclusive of additional characters and settings. The reader is privy to the background of the story as shared in the introduction. As the story proceeds with the teacher telling the story about Banfsheh to her class as if her story is fictional instead actually happening on the train, the reader is made to feel like an insider to how the teacher/writer is developing the story through telling it to her students. Her students anticipate how the little girl and the third character, who is actually the teacher, will continue or discontinue their accidentally created friendship. While the teacher shares her thoughts about Banfsheh through her interactive story-telling with the class, Banfsheh also passively expresses through interactions with her father and grandmother how she is looking forward to talking to the teacher on the phone on Friday, a call that is disappointingly delayed, and even possibly meeting her in the future. Banfsheh experiences emotional ups and downs during the story–from being thrilled to disappointed to longing for contact with the teacher who seems to be nonresponsive for three months.
Although this book is a short novel with relatively large font, it is not easy or quick as a read. Readers have to read and think carefully as if chewing every word read. One of the strategies the author used to develop the theme of human relationships is that of having another inner storytelling; the story of an old man who also develops a quite special friendship with a young girl and his long journey of waiting for her letter. The theme of story, human relationships and its complexity, is enhanced through this additional storyline. Through the story in the story, the reader-audience gets to know the character of the writer-teacher too. Perhaps the theme of relationships is as dynamic as colors in a crayon box—the feelings of expectancy, patience, disappointment, healing, and hopefulness.
For young readers in the U.S. That Night’s Train is a great addition to their international children’s book collections since the author portrays contemporary Iranian society along with universal experiences. There are healthy gender roles, modern landscapes, respectful teacher and student relationships, and an emphasis on storytelling. For example, Banfsheh’s father is not a traditional father. He washes dishes and interacts with his daughter as if they are good friends. The fact the female teacher is also a successful writer may mirror contemporary Iranian society.
Iran is frequently referenced in Western media, which often emphasizes negative stereotypes due to issues of foreign relations with the U.S. Fayyaz and Shirazi (2013) note, “The dominant representations have remained remarkably durable. That is to say, the dominant representational discourse found in these news magazines depicts the political behavior of Iranians on the basis of essentialized notions of Persian and/or Islamic civilization, while very often emphasizing the taken for granted superiority of the West” (p.53). Perhaps the fact the author is an Iranian who actually lives in Shiraz, Iran, enabled him to write a story that does not portray Iranian “culture” as a dominating representational tool but as a basic story setting. Most of all, children’s involvement within this book lets the young members tell their universal experiences in Iran, unlike the common stereotypes about Middle Eastern countries that have traditional societal views.
Ahmad Akbarpour is a winner of the Iranian National Book Award Honor list in 2006. In his author’s note, Akbarpour shares how this book got started when he had his first experience with a Story Writing for Children class. His inquiry question, “how can I make friends with the children?” (p. 91) served as a critical motivator and two children in his real life influenced him to complete this story. First, the second grader Banafsheh Zarrin, inspired him to write about adults’ friendships with children through real life friendships. Second, the sixth grader, Seti Atashzaei, influenced him not to write a predictable story about friendship. Akbarpour dedicates this story to all of the children who inspired him. The friendships in nontraditional relationships can be experienced in other books like Inside and Out Back Again (Thanhha Lai, 2013), One and Only Ivan (Katherine Applegate, 2012), Because of Winn Dixie (Kate DiCamillo, 2000), Bink & Gollie, Two For One (Kate Dicamillo & McGhee, 2012) and The Year of the Book (Andrea Cheng, 2013). Adult friends are not centering characters in these books, yet without their friendship, each story would not be the same. These books illustrate friendship between a child protagonist and adult friend as an important aspect of a healing journey, in which interpersonal relationships help each child protagonist to grow strong and empowered.
Fayyaz, S., & Shirazi, R. (2013). Good Iranian, Bad Iranian: Representations of Iran and Iranians in Time and Newsweek (1998-2009). Iranian Studies, 46, 1, 53-72.
Yoo Kyung Sung, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NMYoo Kyung Sung, University of New Mexico, Albuquerq.