They told me I was an out-of-control train about to crash…
Everything changed when the police officer knocked on the door to tell me – a 16-year-old – that my older sister Kristen had died of a brain aneurysm. Cue the start of my parents neglecting me and my whole life spiraling out of control.
I decided now was the perfect time to skip town. It’s the early 90’s, Kurt Cobain runs the grunge music scene and I just experienced some serious trauma. What’s a girl supposed to do? I didn’t want to end up like Kristen, so I grabbed my bucket list, turned up my mixtape of the greatest 90’s hits and fled L.A.. The goal was to end up at Kurt Cobain’s house in Seattle, but I never could have guessed what would happen along the way.
I was approached by Henry Roi via Twitter about reading a copy of Runaway Train in return for an honest review. Many thanks to Henry Roi for reaching out and to author Lee Matthew Goldburg for sending over a copy of the book.
Runaway Train follows the story of teenager Nico and her efforts to come to terms with the recent loss of her older sister, Kristen. With her parents occupied and dealing with their grief in their own ways, Nico feels completely neglected and, with the encouragement from her friends, goes on a road trip to fulfil her own bucket-list before she shares in her sisters tragic fate.
Coming of Age stories aren’t my usual cup-of-tea, but I felt attracted to the era in which Runaway Train was set and the alternative culture that Nico has surrounded herself with. I knew from reading the blurb that this wasn’t going to be you usual run of the mill, high-school based coming of age story. Instantly there was a character I could relate to in Nico; she reminded me of a much wilder-spirited version of myself and reading about her adventures made me feel somewhat nostalgic towards my own youth. There was a genuine personality to her that instantly made me connect with her and her troubles. She is a true wild-child of the 90’s that has wrapped her existence up in the alternative music scene and all the ‘grunge’ that it entails – her life is going rapidly off the rails after losing her, unknowingly, guiding light in her more mild-mannered sister, Kristen. I felt keenly for her loss and her reasoning for running away from home and while she was plummeting towards her worst iteration of herself, there was always the inkling of hope surrounding her.
I found Runaway Train entertaining to read about the items on Nico’s bucket list and the means in which she achieves them. There are some really well written scenes in which Nico meets new faces and easily makes new friends. The interactions she shares with various new faces throughout her journey are well written and are easily imagined. So too are the inner thoughts that Nico has about herself, her doubts, her fears and how she see’s herself – there are references throughout the book that Nico has low-self esteem and views herself as overweight and ‘unlovable’ for it; despite being told otherwise by the plethora of boys she meets on her journey. These vulnerable parts to Nico make her feel much more realistic as a person; they add to her character rather than hinder, what young woman, growing into an adult body, doesn’t feel this way about themselves? It’s captivating to read about because it’s an experience as a reader that I share with Nico and reading about insecurities may help a young reader become more comfortable with her own.
Nico does some very wild things throughout her trip and while I enjoyed reading about the craziness she does and goes through, there are some scenes within her story that shocked me – they are things that I would have been to afraid of doing at such a young age, but I feel that this is entirely the point of the story. Nico is on a downward spiral and the things that she does are her, in her own way, crying out for help. As a character she is at times, abrasive, argumentative and angry. All of which are justifiable qualities considering both her situation and her age; she is a mid-teenager and everything in life at this point feels hard, without having to suffer the grief of loss.
There is a musical element to the story; again bringing back to personal experiences, music at to a teenager is a deeply personal thing – it helps express emotions that could otherwise be struggled with. So, having the titles of music feed back into the story is a well-played act on the authors part. It helps the songs have more personal meaning to the characters and the situations they’re either in or thinking about. I found this to be well considered and it aided the flow of the story, bringing each chapter to it’s close without losing focus on the event or on the story as a whole.
Along with Nico there are other characters, her best friend Winter I found to be particularly compelling and complicated. I am hopeful that there will be an individual story about Winter and her own journey – be it a road-trip or something more spiritual – further down the line as I felt that she still had more to say.
Throughout the book, as Nico develops, we are shown different aspects of her character and she develops. Her arc is one of self-discovery and seeing looking back on where she first started and how she grows is the magic of Runaway Train. The individual events, while captivating in themselves, all add up to make a whole experience that influence how Nico emerges at the end of the story.
There are a lot of references to sex within Runaway Train, as an adult with hindsight, I didn’t really have an issue with this. All most teenagers think about is their latest crush and who they’d like to hook up with, Nico just has the gusto to get what she wants from the boys she finds on her journey; or try to. While it may come across as a bit far-fetched (And the over thinking that this book was written by a an adult male and the connotations that go with that.) to some, I actually found this aspect of Nico’s character pretty accurate. She is out in the world, let loose and going wild. Off the rails wild, her promiscuity is one of the more tempered aspects of her character and at this point of the plot, what does she have left to lose?
I found myself captivated by Nico and her story; eager to know what happens to her, how does she manage to save herself before winding up dead in an alleyway somewhere? The writing style of Runaway Train is easy to follow and leaves a vivid imagery in its wake. I’d like to have had a little more depth to some of the supporting characters, but to do so would have distracted from Nico herself – the true star of the story – so maybe there’s room for future works involving these side characters instead?
A well written character study of a tear-away teenager with one three things on her mind, sex, drugs and grunge. Sharing magical moments of teenage vulnerability alongside musical trends of the 90s. A heartwarming story of redemption and personal growth. I recommend to anyone that can view the book with the hindsight of this being about a teenager as well as younger readers who will view themselves in Nico.