An Eco-Fable From the Writer of ‘The Magicians’
THE SILVER ARROW
By Lev Grossman
It’s Kate’s 11th birthday and what she wants more than anything in the world is to feel special and necessary. For a child in the everyday 21st century – her parents are workaholics and she is bored with “kid things” and “real life” – this is a big challenge, at least until her crazy Uncle Herbert shows up with an unusual birthday present. A double-wide flatbed truck: the Silver Arrow, a steam train (or at least its engine and a coal wagon) that he drops onto tracks that he has set up in the backyard and that lead to an unknown location.
Much like Norton Juster’s Phantom toll booth, this mysterious mode of transportation is the perfect vehicle for a heroine’s endeavors. When Kate’s parents object to training tracks where their shadow garden should lead, she remembers her personal hero, computer programmer Grace Hopper, and says, “Sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.”
She and her younger brother Tom climb aboard and take on the role of conductors on a journey that seems easy at first glance. When they reach a train station, they are asked to ask what they want and need: cars with books, sweets, a swimming pool, next to passenger cars, dining cars and sleeping cars. (Only Tom’s requests for swords, weapons and electronics go unheeded.) But soon they are traveling through redwood forests, over desert tundra and deep under the sea.
Kate has a newfound responsibility. It’s not just about polishing the brass fittings. As a conductor, she must find fuel when it runs out, stifle disputes between passengers (more about who they are later), and face her own mortality. She once wished for a zombie apocalypse or an alien invasion so that she “can triumph against all odds and save everyone”. Now she understands the pressures of adulthood.
The same delightful kind of genre deconstruction that animates Grossman’s young adult “Magicians” trilogy is at work in “The Silver Arrow”. “He didn’t actually say flames, but you can’t put the word he said in a children’s book,” the narrator’s cheeky side is aside after Kate’s father berated Uncle Herbert. The children’s book, in which we put this aside, is an eco-fable that tackles a serious global crisis (climate change, although the term is never used) with a whim: it’s easier to get kids interested in theoretical scientific concepts when they are charmed by talking animals. What brings us to these passengers.
The travelers that Kate’s train collects are displaced wild creatures waiting to be taken to a safe place. Many are threatened with extinction or have been driven from their habitats: a fishing cat whose mangrove swamp was drained to build a hotel, a white-bellied heron whose river was dammed into a power station, a half-drowned polar bear whose ice platform has anything but melted. Over the weeks, these anthropomorphic refugees teach the children about widespread planetary damage caused by humans. Kate is deeply ashamed of her species, and yet the passengers do not despise her or humanity. “The world has lost its old balance, but it is not too late. It could always find a new one, ”says the heron.
Like Grossman’s “Magicians” protagonist Quentin Coldwater, Kate possesses both a nagging dissatisfaction with the real world and a romantic idea of how it should be. But while in “The Magicians” magic offers unfortunate people a way out, in “The Silver Arrow” it shows Kate that she doesn’t have to escape into a fantasy world if there is more rewarding work to be done in it than she had ever imagined. The train may be extraordinary, but Kate is a normal girl with a job to do. It might not be about fighting a zombie apocalypse, but it’s pretty close.