≡ Menu

Review: ‘Train to Nowhere’ by Colleen Bradford Krantz

Review: ‘Train to Nowhere’ by Colleen Bradford Krantz post image

Title: Train to Nowhere: Inside an Immigrant Death Investigation
Author: Colleen Bradford Krantz
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2011
Acquired: From the author/publisher for review as part of a blog tour.
Rating: ★★★½☆

One Sentence Summary: When the bodies of eleven illegal immigrants were found in a train car in Iowa in 2002, authorities and the victims’ families demanded answers.

One Sentence Review: Train to Nowhere is a great “back to basics” nonfiction book — clean writing, relevant research, and a hint of the larger context of immigration policy.

Long Review: When a train arrived in the farming community of Denison, Iowa in October 2002, it seemed like an ordinary train. But when B.J. Schany, assistant manager at the grain elevator, opened freight car GVSR 518018, he came across an entirely un-ordinary site — the decomposed bodies of 11 undocumented immigrants that had been locked in the car for months.

As the story unfolds, it comes to light that these immigrants — traveling illegally to the United States from various parts of Central America — were abandoned in the rail car by the smugglers they paid to get them into the United States safely. In Train to Nowhere, journalist Colleen Bradford Krantz tries to piece together the events leading up to the grisly discovery and the subsequent criminal cases against the smugglers, using this event as a way to try and explore larger immigration issues in the United States.

Sometimes it feels to me like there is a lot of experimentation going on with writing nonfiction. While I sometimes (well, often) love books that play around with the genre (I’m thinking specifically about The Convert here), it’s also nice to read nonfiction that lets the research and the story speak for itself.

In the case of Train to Nowhere, I got the feeling like I was going back to the basics — a well-researched, confidently written, journalistic look at a particular event and what that event means in a larger context. That’s not to say the book is simple, but rather that Train to Nowhere doesn’t experiment with or embellish this story. The book reads very much like a long magazine story rather than the sort of pseudo-memoir nonfiction that I’ve been reading lately, and I liked that a lot.

The book starts with the discovery on the rail car, then backs up to profile the victims, investigators, and immigrant smugglers that are connected through this event. The stories about how to the victims made the difficult decision to try and illegally come to the United States were especially poignant, although I also liked learning how the different law enforcement officers came to find themselves working on immigration issues.

Because of the nature of the story, there’s really no way to know what exactly happened to the victims during their time in the rail car — none of them are alive to tell us. To make up for this huge gap in what we can realistically know, Bradford Krantz does a lot of research trying to figure out what it may have been like and uses experts to offer opinions rather than speculating herself. Rather than just describing what heat stroke is like, she interviews a professor who studies the phenomenon and relies on his expertise to fill in some of the gaps.

One thing I wanted a little more of from the book was a look at some of the larger issues related to immigration policies and challenges in the United States. The book is a very micro look at one incident and does explore the issues a little bit — particularly the way immigration smugglers work to get people into the United States — but I still wanted a little more. That said, I don’t think Bradford Krantz was trying to write a book about the entire politics of immigration, so it’s hard to fault the book for not doing that, you know?

Train to Nowhere isn’t a big or fancy book, but it tells a story that deserves to be told. This well-documented look at one tragic immigration story was definitely a worthwhile read for me.

This post is the second day of a week-long blog tour for the publication of Colleen Bradford Krantz’s book, “Train to Nowhere: Inside an Immigrant Death Investigation,” which is being released this month. You can join the author tomorrow for a guest post at ImmigrationProg Blog. You can also find out about the book on Facebook, visit the author’s website, or follow her on Twitter @bradfordkrantz.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) June 1, 2011, 12:46 pm

    Can you imagine the horror those people went through. Just reading your synopsis horrified me. The book sounds like an important one.

    • Kim June 1, 2011, 5:13 pm

      It’s really hard to imagine, Kathy. The idea of their experience is really sickening. I think it’s a really important book.

  • Aths June 1, 2011, 12:51 pm

    That’s a scary premise! It reminds me of Bringing Adam Home, which also talked about the whole investigation to find the abductor of a kid.

    • Kim June 1, 2011, 5:13 pm

      Interesting, Aths, I’ve never heard of that book. I’ll have to look into it, even though it sounds disturbing too.

  • Trisha June 1, 2011, 8:22 pm

    One er…issue (dang is that the right word) with focused non-fiction books is that they do leave you wanting more about the larger issue. It’s partially a mark of a good read. 🙂

    • Kim June 4, 2011, 8:45 am

      Yeah, I think that’s something that topical nonfiction struggles with — it’s hard to balance reporting on the event with the context of the event. But I think a book like this is a good place to start thinking about immigration issues, and piqued my curiosity to read more.

  • Brooke (Books Distilled) June 2, 2011, 11:55 am

    This sounds like a great read. I know what you mean about psuedo-memoir nonfiction and I always want writers to pick one! Pick memoir or pick nonfiction. (I read this really funny article in the NY Times about a new memoir by Luca Spaghetti, who is a character in Liz Gilbert’s memoir Eat Pray Love. The reporter’s boss tells him, “It’s a meta-memoir…a meta-moir!” http://tinyurl.com/62a7c9w)
    The blurring can get a little weird for me. Anyway, thanks for the recommendation!

    • Kim June 4, 2011, 8:47 am

      Ha, that NYT story is hilarious! Sometimes the memoir-ish nonfiction works well, but other times it just feels forced. I’d much, much rather the author just pick something and go with it.

  • Colleen June 4, 2011, 7:24 pm

    This is an important story – thanks for highlighting the book. Even though the author may not have delved into the politics of immigration in the US, the book may spark discussion about the topic since it is adjacent to the focus of the book.

    • Kim June 5, 2011, 12:47 pm

      Yes, I think that’s exactly the point — the book is a good place to start a discussion on immigration issues.