Work is scarce and Oscar’s dad has a tough time at it first. Meanwhile, Oscar is working on improving his math grades at school. While his aunt and cousin go about their tutoring and speech lessons to wealthier families, Oscar stays at home. One day he meets an older man named Mr. Applegate. Mr. Applegate used to be a mathematics professor at Princeton, but his theories about Einstein and time travel were too advanced for the time. He lost his job and now travels around from place to place looking for work. Mr. Applegate helps Oscar with his math and introduces him to great literature. Mr. Applegate eventually gets hired at the local bank as a night watchman. Weeks before Christmas the bank reveals an impressive lobby display of trains, all of which used to belong to Oscar and his father. Mr. Applegate lets Oscar in to watch every night, showing him how to turn the alarm back on when he comes in. One night, Oscar forgets and two criminals show up to rob the bank. One of them doesn’t want any witnesses and tries to shoot Oscar. Mr. Applegate calls out for Oscar to jump and jump he does, becoming small enough to board one of the trains on the lobby display.
However, things grow more mysterious when Oscar discovers that he actually is traveling on a real train in real time from Chicago to Los Angeles. He needs to get back home and stop the robbers, but he’s not sure how. His journey takes him not only from part of the country to the other, but from one time to another, too.
ON THE BLUE COMET is a very creative and imaginative story. The story is basically a piece of historical fiction with some sci-fi and fantasy elements tied in. The settings of the story are grounded in reality. Many of the events that take place are historical, the places are real, and the famous people Oscar meets are people he very well could have met in those situations. I liked it how Ronald Reagan is never referred to beyond his nickname of “Dutch” or that Alfred Hitchcock is only known to Oscar as Mr. H. The famous people he meets doesn’t stop there because later he meets the Kennedys, J.P. Morgan, Nelson Rockefeller, Henry Mellon, Charles Merrill, and Edmund Lynch but they are all referred to by their real names.
The book is illustrated by Russian artist Bagram Ibatoulline. Until recently, I had never heard of the man, but not long ago I read Kate DiCamillo’s children’s Christmas story, GREAT JOY and Ibatoulline drew the illustrations for that book. His pictures for ON THE BLUE COMET are quite literally astounding. They are like looking at actual paintings from a different era. These pictures go along way in helping to further set the mood, tone, and settings of the story. I also liked the occasional use of the newspaper articles and hand-written letters in the book. They help augment the visual appeal of the text.
I very much enjoyed reading ON THE BLUE COMET. It’s a story that older elementary kids and early middle-school students who have an interest in time travel, history, or trains will enjoy and if someone likes all three they are sure to love it.