Reviewed by Daniel Terrill
Linda Grant Niemann worked in the railroad industry for more than 20 years. She has authored two books, Railroad Memoirs and Railroad Voices, chronicling her experiences on the rails. In Railroad Noir, a photographic book of essays, Niemann describes the sexist attitude railroaders had when the Southern Pacific Railroad Company first hired women in 1979 when a conductor told her, “You girls are going to quit the first time it rains.” Steady railroad work was physically and mentally taxing and required boomers, or railroaders, to move all around the country for work. Niemann notes common consequences of the strenuous lifestyle, affecting many boomers, including herself, such as turning to alcohol and other unhealthy habits to deal with long stressful work hours and absence of family. Although the pay was great, many slept in trucks, hotels, or shanties because home was often an option available less than ten days a month. Relationships were difficult to maintain when the railroad only allowed boomers to see loved ones for twelve hours, every seven days. And fear of job loss as management constantly changed routine by forcing arbitrary safety regulations, created a catch-22 for workers—follow rules and ruin efficiency, or ignore rules and get fired. It begs the question why would anyone work for the railroad?
Many answers in Railroad Noir are not as romantic as some may speculate. Some boomers say they did it for the money, camaraderie, or even tradition. Niemann said the railroad gave her “the rarest of all experiences, a view from the other side . . . it took me places and showed me things I never would have been able to see just living my middle-class life.”
Photographer Joel Jensen captures Niemann’s words with images. His photos and Niemann’s narrative conjure feelings of isolation and exhaustion. The tracks seem endless and the engine seems unstoppable, creating an almost unapproachable world visible only to railroaders much like space is to astronauts inside a capsule. The photos capture men driving spikes on a railroad in sweltering desert heat; switching cars early in the morning; the Amtrak Coast Starlight speeding across a bridge as the sun sets; a freight train crossing a dry lakebed along a mountain range in the Mojave Desert; lines of track laid more than a hundred years ago that pass through remote countryside most Americans will never see, or even know about.
At first this book reads like a feminist’s perspective of the railroad industry, but after a few chapters you realize it isn’t. Even though some treated her unfairly, Niemann tells her story with a nonjudgmental point-of-view. She explains why they treated her poorly and suggests before one is accepted as a boomer he or she must prove their worth.
Many descriptions and actions contain railroad jargon making it difficult for laymen to understand. You get an idea of procedure, but to better help you understand Niemann includes a glossary. She describes switchman switching cars while they’re moving, but never explained what the actual switchman does. He seems to pull a pin and re-insert it to another boxcar connecting a hundred boxcars to an engine. It never explains actually pulling the pin or tools needed, but rather explained it in boomer jargon. It is supposed to be a dangerous and time-consuming job if you don’t know what you’re doing. Is the pin big? Small? Do you need tools to pull it out? How do you control a moving boxcar without the engine? I found it difficult to visualize, but many railroaders should be able to appreciate it.
Railroad Noir includes historical railroad details and characters Niemann met along the way, but first and foremost it is about Niemann’s life during her railroad career. She includes amazing personal vignettes that capture the highs and lows of working for the railroad. “Learning Spanish” tells how she was able to take a month off thanks to her career, live in Mexico, and seriously study Spanish, which in turn benefited her as she worked mainly in the Southwest. In “The Big Four Bar,” she examines a strained relationship she had with a sexy Italian female police sergeant, which was limited to 12 hours, one day a week.
Railroad Noir is an engaging memoir because of its honest depiction of a unique industry and career. Niemann’s objective approach turns you both on and off to the railroad lifestyle. Once you’ve finished Railroad Noir and you see a train, instead of a hundred boxcars you’ll think about the three people running that mass of iron and steel and freight. Then you’ll wonder when they’ll stop.
Daniel Terrill is an MFA candidate in Columbia College's Fiction Writing program.Posted on November 22, 2010 at 12:00 PM