By Jonathan Evison
Algonquin Books: January 11, 2022
480 pages, $28.00
Jonathan Evison is one of the more prolific and versatile novelists of recent years. In the past decade, he’s published West of Here (2011); The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (2012); This is Your Life, Harriet Chance (2015); Lawn Boy (2018); and Legends of the North Cascades (2021).
In January, his latest novel, Small World, will be published by Algonquin Books. According to Evison, this is the book he’s been dreaming of writing for a long time. The framing device is an accident involving an Amtrak cross-country train. The passengers, as one might expect, represent a microcosm of America. Evison weaves together the stories of several passengers with their American origin stories going back as far as 1851.
In doing so, he tells the story of America in the last 175 years. Small World gives us Irish and Chinese immigrants, slaves and servants, rich and poor, the construction of the transcontinental railroad, the California Gold Rush, and the American Dream in all its glory and disappointment.
It took me a little while to wrap my head around the multiple stories and the frequent shifts in time and place. But once I absorbed the key characters and their situations, I found each story to be involving. You’ll root for these characters to overcome the many obstacles in their paths. There is a momentary feeling of “To be continued” as many sections end on a cliffhanger. Their story might not pick up again for several chapters. But the feeling of temporary “whiplash” from the changing characters and sub-plots soon diminishes and the big picture begins to take shape. It’s a pleasure to watch their lives unfold and see how their lives intersect.
Small World reminds us that the United States is a big country that contains multitudes, but that our common ground as Americans – as people — supersedes our differences, if only we pay attention and open our hearts to others’ stories. Small World has a modern sensibility in that it addresses a range of contemporary social and cultural issues, but Evison’s storytelling is old-fashioned in the best way: a little on the sentimental, optimistic side but absorbing and thought-provoking. And I remember when being sentimental and optimistic were core American traits.
Small World makes us want to get back in touch with the better angels of our nature. A January publication date is ideal timing. It’s a big book to hunker down with on a cold day; it will entertain you and warm your heart.