A few months ago, Ann Whitely-Gillenwrote a guest post for my blog, called The Experience of Writing. It was so well written that I promised her–and myself–that I’d read her book as soon as I had a chance to do so. Now, finally, I’ve read her book, Last Train to Omaha.
Published in 2013, Last Train to Omahacenters around protagonist James Milligan, a thirty-five year old architect in Chicago, who’s been traumatized and deeply wounded by the loss of his best friend, Stephen Pike, who died at the age of 18. As a result, James suffers from intense emotional pain which has lasted for nearly twenty years. His only outlet seems to be helping veterans like Martin Diggs, who have experienced the horrors of war, at the Aaron Milligan Palliative Care Center hospital, where his parents and sister also work. James is referred to as “The Shepherd” at the hospital because of his role helping patients who are close to death. Although James appears to have a gift aiding the dying, he’s been unable to live his life fully because of the trauma he experienced as a teenager. He’s bound by a past that continues to haunt him, even though his family–especially his sister, Kitty–have been supportive. James has been closed to all relationships since Stephen died, but one day he meets Rebecca, the nurse who will be replacing Kitty (because Kitty’s almost ready to give birth). Although Rebecca is attractive, charming, and compassionate, and there is romantic potential between them, James is still aloof and distraught and emotionally unavailable. Will James ever heal emotionally and psychologically? There’s a truckload of tension and drama.
What did I think of this book? I’ll cut to the chase because this is a rather long post, which also includes an informal essay by the author, and a giveaway. I had a feeling this would be a good book, but I didn’t know just how good it would be. It surpassed my expectations. Last Train to Omaha is profound and poignant, intelligent and thoughtful. From the first page, I was an attentive and eager reader. Gradually, as the story unfolded, I learned more about each of the main characters, including Stephen, and how he died. The author has an exquisite ability to animate her characters; they are real people, with strengths and flaws. I became emotionally invested in the main characters, especially James, Rebecca, Kitty, and Martin, who’s particularly charming.
Ann Whitely-Gillen is a superb writer. It was hard to believe that this was her first novel! She makes us think about how deeply past events, especially horrific ones, can affect us. Last Train to Omaha is also a lovely tribute to our veterans, who have suffered greatly for others. As I mention in my introduction to Ann’s guest post, Last Train to Omaha is a story about accepting the past and moving forward. Having read the book, I can now add that it’s also about accepting the responsibility to live life more fully, to experience our emotional, physical, and spiritual journeys more completely.
“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”
~ Eleanor Roosevelt
This story is a story of pain, death and loss but more than that, it’s a story of hope, love, forgiveness and letting go. There is no denying the fact that one will need a box of tissues at some stages in the story but those are tears of catharsis, of healing and of relief.
James Milligan at thirty five cannot let go of the pain and loss he suffered years ago when his best friend Stephen died at eighteen in a tragic accident right in front of his eyes. He feels responsible for the death and immensely guilty, so guilty that he not able to nurture any existing relationships in his life, neither he builds new ones. His only salvation is his self acquired role of the “Shepherd” in the family run palliative care hospital for war veterans run by his family. He sits through the last moments of the terminally ill and helps ease their passage to the other world.
Then comes in Martin; a character which steals the show. Martin is a friend of James’s father who takes upon himself to alleviate the boy’s pain and help him rediscover himself and life. Being terminally ill, his zest for living is exemplary. His resolve to help James come out of his predicament and find life again is the crux of the story.
The plot to begin with seemed to be going nowhere actually. James on the surface seems like any young successful person who shuts out his family and is a work alcoholic but like onion peels, the layers came off his character and the plot too. It was intriguing till the end. Once you get through the beginning, you are caught hook, line and sinker in the story. The characters are weaved into the plot with a great ease. Kitty; the feisty sister, Janice; the mother are all well etched. Rebecca as the prospective girlfriend is enticingly portrayed; the reader can feel what she feels. The little friendships, the fairy tale romances and camaraderie blossoming in the hospital are heartening. James’s journey of self discovery encouraged by Martin Diggs as a father figure and Ted as friend and guide is a revelation.
There are such realistic portrayals of family and the veterans that one doesn’t even realize that one has become a part of it all. You feel with them, laugh with them and cry with them. You feel their pain and revel in their joy as much as you smirk on the one liners and shed tears with them, finding in their story snippets and reflections of your own pain, suffering and joy at one time or the other.
For those who are dealing with disease, death and loss of loved ones- this book has the capacity to teach how to take it in stride and deal with it. It tells you that you have to bury the skeleton of your past and take good things from life and move on. It restores your faith in life and love. For everyone else too it’s a book that will leave you a little wiser, little happier and very peaceful.
Literati Literature Lovers
This is a story of forgiveness and acceptance; two concepts James Milligan knows nothing of nor wants anything to do with. He’s a broken soul that is currently being suffocated behind the walls he built around himself after witnessing the death of his best friend, Stephen. To call these two best friends is an understatement. You might as well consider them two bodies sharing one soul with the relationship that bloomed between them during their childhood. With their tragic separation, James is left barely hanging on to a life which he has no idea what to do with. He’s lost and scared and avoids anything that resembles a relationship; even with those who love and care for him the most. The only thing he finds peace in is spending time volunteering on the palliative care floor of the local veteran’s hospital. Known amongst the residents as The Shepherd, he faces death by the bedsides of each veteran who’s on the cusp of leaving this earth all while giving them a calming peace during their last waking moments.
It’s in these moments that James himself faces his own past and shares his feelings and thoughts with those whose hand he’s holding. These departing souls take with them an acceptance of their journey full of whispered knowledge and James continues on his path of solitude waiting for the next moment to share. What he doesn’t see coming is a man with a soul not ready to leave this world until James is ready to face his secrets and become what he was destined to be.The care of our country’s veterans is definitely a family business with his mother, Janice, as a current and active board member and a younger firecracker of a sister, Kitty, as a nurse under the umbrella of the hospital that bears his father’s name. In this facility there are many patients who come and go, and each bring a specific story of battle, fear, and brotherhood. These veterans are both young and old and help shed light on the trials and troubles each generation of soldiers has had to face on and off the battlefield. It’s in these stories that a family comes to life and bonds are formed that cannot be measured against any others.
You can’t help but feel respect for each of these men and women with the sacrifices they’ve made and you find a peaceful joy knowing that they have each other and a wonderful caring staff to take care of them.We also meet Rebecca, a new nurse to the staff of the hospital but who brings a story of her own. She faces her own struggles but has a brilliant light about her that everyone seems to be drawn to, including James. She has a way with each patient that she cares for that shows her heart and what she could give to James if he’d just let her. With James lost in his own world he forgets that those around him suffer as well and unfortunately Rebecca looks like she will be just another victim. Or will she?
This cast of characters cannot be divided into main or supporting columns in my opinion because each play a pivotal role in the journey this story takes. You’re not only on an emotional journey, but you are also taken on a physical journey to battlefields and foreign lands which you cannot prepare yourself enough for. You are given a front row seat to love, loss, fear, and bravery through the eyes and mind of each of these complex characters and that is what makes each of them special to me. Mrs. Whitely-Gillen has created a world that is beautiful and harsh but never let either take control. She tackles some very tough themes but does so without overloading the reader or glazing over the reality of it all. This was a beautiful tribute not only to our treasured veterans but also to the families and care providers that tend to be forgotten after the battle is over.
A well-constructed story for a first novel and I look forward to seeing what other projects Mrs. Whitely-Gillen has on the horizon.
Maybe one day I will also have the pleasure of seeing this journey on a movie screen. 🙂
The only witness to his best friend’s death at an early age, James hides away from life behind a tough exterior. Only while visiting veterans at his family’s palliative care hospital. Know as “the Shepherd” for his ability to sit beside the hospitals dying patients and ease their transition, James only allows his facade to crack in these tender moments. When he meets Martin Diggs, one of the hospitals veterans, James has no idea that he will soon be facing his past.
Beautifully crafted, Last Train to Omaha is a captivating story of loss and love. The storyline is multi-faceted, and while there are many supporting characters, every single one had an integral part in James’ life. I particularly enjoyed the emphasis of the veterans and their stories, and felt Ms. Whitely-Gillen gave a tremendous tribute to our aging veterans.
Last Train to Omaha is a five-star book that elicits emotions that will stay with you long past the ending. I highly recommend this and look forward to Ms. Whitely-Gillen’s next endeavor.Source of review:http://literaryrr.blogspot.ca/2013/05/review-last-train-to-omaha-by-ann.html
Pen and Paper
Oh my goodness, what an amazing novel. A story of rediscovery, of rebirth, of finding oneself, its been a long while since I found myself on such an emotional rollercoaster, that I invested so much in a character – the charismatic war veteran Martin Diggs will stay with me for a long time to come.
A truly bitter-sweet read. Given that Last Train To Omaha is set in a palliative care hospital for the veterans of various conflicts (Vietnam and Afghanistan included) and is largely about James ‘Jimmy’ Milligan, a very damaged man scarred by the death of his childhood friend some 20 years previously, you could be forgiven for thinking it would be a relentlessly depressing novel when in fact its anything but.
Though, without doubt an exceptionally moving read (I’d be surprised if you made it through to the end without the need for a box of tissues) essentially its a story full of such hope. Wonderfully well written, the authors love and compassion for these characters shines through, I’d love to see it as a film.Source of review:http://pettywitter.blogspot.ca/2013/05/last-train-to-omaha.html
I Feel So Unnecessary
A well written thought provoking book, I especially liked the character of Martin- such a wise individual. I found myself wishing he was a real person. All of the characters well rounded. I laughed, I cried and ended up learning a little about myself. I also found it to be a beautiful tribute to veterans.A fine debut novel. So, it’s gonna be a four tea-cupper.
What a ride!
I’ll be honest, for the first half of the book, I thought it was “just a story”. By the end of it, I realized what a terrific piece of literary fiction it is. Characters that are so well-rounded that I cried like a baby when one died.
Oh, let me tell you about Martin. He is not one of the main characters, or maybe he secretly is, but he stole the show. Between his wits, words of wisdom and general awesome attitude, I found myself deeply connected to his character.
That says a lot to me as a reader. When I set the book down and reflect. I am usually more apt to dig into the profoundness of a story, but not this time. While I loved the story, I ended up loving Martin more.
Definitely a fantastic book for literary fans. This is one of those books that makes you think and takes you on a journey.
PS – Bring tissues.Source of review:http://fredasvoice.blogspot.ca/2013/06/55-last-train-to-omaha-ann-whitely.html