Kenneth Oppel's incredible train journey like no other

Sasquatches and Cornelius Van Horne meet on the train in Ken Oppel’s new book

It’s 1888, and an 11-km-long transcontinental train has pulled out of Halifax bound for Vancouver. Aboard its 987 cars are 15-year-old Will Everett—the kid, no less, who drove in the Canadian Pacific railway’s Last Spike—along with 6,494 other living souls, and Cornelius Van Horne, the CPR’s real-life first president and guiding genius, lying in his coffin. All are soon to be menaced by sasquatches, muskeg-dwelling hags and murderous human thieves. If there ever was a novel crying out for a rail-borne nation-spanning promotional tour, it’s The Boundless, which takes its title from the monster train at its heart. That’s especially true considering its author. Kenneth Oppel, 46, has a slew of critical honours for his children’s literature, including a Governor General’s Award, a massive readership—as of this year, he’s sold a million copies of his books in Canada—and an abiding love of trains. “I took the Canadian across the west for research,” he says, “or so I claim. I really took it because I loved it—it’s the train.”

But they just don’t make trains, or at least train schedules, the way they used to, Oppel laughs, and “although we tried and tried, there’s no way to get off one and back on another reasonably soon.” So, starting in Victoria, “I will be flying, ironically enough,” to meet literally thousands of fans at schools and libraries in B.C. and across the prairies, before boarding a train from Toronto, where he makes his home, to Halifax.

Of course, they never made trains the way Oppel imagines the Boundless to have been. Its locomotive sounds demonic: “Massive and black, like something forged with lightning and thunder, a steel galleon on nine sets of towering wheels.” Its third-class cars are crammed with poor immigrants coming to take up western land grants. Second class carries more established farmers and ranchers, while first class, with its cinemas and swimming pools, is Titanic-level dazzling in its mahogany and brass finishings and its famous Canadian passengers.

“As it turns out, I’m quite patriotic,” Oppel says in mock surprise. That might explain the presence of railway pioneers Sandford Fleming, Donald Smith and Van Horne—who makes a pre-coffin appearance in the first chapter, set three years before the main story—if not their actions. The railway men behave normally, until they pull out a fearsome array of weaponry and start blasting away through a railcar ceiling at a sasquatch aiming to kill their engineer. Less Canadian history, Oppel happily agrees, than Canadian folklore: “More a magic-realism take.”

Many of the fictional characters are best understood in that way, too, especially the compelling Mr. Dorian, the ringmaster of the on-board circus. (There are nods throughout Boundless to popular Victorian-era literature, including, surprisingly, Oscar Wilde: A name is not all the ringmaster has in common with the protagonist of The Picture of Dorian Gray.) Not to mention the sasquatches. Every time Oppel thought of the iconic Last Spike photograph—Donald Smith driving home the final link in the CPR at Craigellachie in 1885 (faking it, actually, Oppel’s hero Will would argue)—the author would imagine a sasquatch, “scary and mysterious,” lurking in the background. His are no gentle herbivores, but predators with long memories for their tormentors—and a particularly nasty trick with human heads when they encounter one. “Well, yes,” Oppel adds, “they do bear grudges.”

For a book aimed at 10- to 14-year-olds, there is a very high level of human ambiguity, the sort of texture that marks all Oppel’s books. When Will expresses his outrage at the treatment meted out to the new immigrants, he is silenced by the Metis Dorian’s hostility to those who’ve come to farm his people’s land. Even the chief villain has his motives that can raise more than a flicker of sympathy. “I try to use as much of the human palette as possible,” Oppel says. “It’s more interesting for me to show people’s good and bad sides, and I think kids, even young kids, appreciate it.” Adventure, history—even if Cornelius Van Horne never did shoot at an engineer-hunting sasquatch—and moral nuance: The Boundless deserves its name.

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