Sunday, September 12, 2010

Railroad Noir

"Engine House, East Ely, Nevada"
copyright by Joel Jensen, all rights reserved
Used by permission
(click on images for larger view)

To say that writer Linda Niemann’s background is diverse may be an understatement. She earned a PhD in English literature from U.C. Berkeley and then spent twenty years working as a brakeman for the railroad. She now teaches writing and literature at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. Niemann’s latest book, Railroad Noir: The American West at the End of the Twentieth Century, published earlier this year by Indiana University Press, is collaboration with photographer Joel Jensen. Niemann is also the author of Boomer (University of California Press, 1990; later reissued as On The Rails: A Woman’s Journey by Cleis Press, 1997), and Railroad Voices along with photographer Lina Bertucci (Stanford University Press, 1998).

As one of the first women railroaders hired in the 1970s, Niemann trained and worked in Watsonville, California. But as railroads merged and rail yards closed not long after her hire, she spent much of her railroading career as a boomer, traveling to where the jobs were that she could bid on since she was low in seniority rank. She worked rail yards in Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas, as well as in her hometown of Los Angeles, California. In a career that spanned several decades, she worked as a brakeman, switchman, and later as a conductor.

"Container Train Crossing Dry Lake Bed, Amboy, California
Copyright by Joel Jensen, All Rights Reserved
Used by Permission

Linda Niemann writes some of the best narratives of place I’ve read. Through her descriptions of the southwestern desert, I can almost feel the dust, hear the rattlesnakes, and see the heat waves (a few drops of my own sweat may have even fallen onto the open pages as I read). She writes with passion about the land and the people she worked with, and she is not fearful about delving into difficult topics or showing the loneliness and isolation that go with the itinerant lifestyle of the boomer.

Niemann does not romanticize the railroader’s life, and Railroad Noir is sometimes a tough, gritty read. This is not Kerouac’s “Railroad Earth” (although I’ve read reviews making such comparisons – possibly because she sometimes worked the same routes along the peninsula south of San Francisco and Watsonville as he once did). It is, however, an honest story about a dangerous and physical job with a grueling schedule (sometimes twelve hours on, eight hours off – essentially working two shifts per day for twenty days straight, and always tethered to the telephone which could ring at any time to call workers in for a shift) that allows no sense of home or family life. In the introduction, Niemann writes: “I called the book Railroad Noir to borrow some of the dark, alienated, and hard-boiled elements from the cinematic term. A certain romance attaches to the railroad, but I wanted to signal that these stories give it a twist. Railroad workers often feel a sense of betrayed romance as they confront the realities of their lives . . . a part that is often omitted in railroad literature.”

"Abandoned Depot, Currie, Nevada"
Copyright by Joel Jensen, All Rights Reserved,
Used by Permission

The essays in Railroad Noir are indeed dark. Beautifully written, they provide an unflinching look at the hard desert landscape of the southwest and railroading during the 1990s when the Southern Pacific Railroad was in decline. Joel Jensen’s photographs were hand-selected by Niemann after she traveled to Ely, Nevada to meet with him and view his prints. Of his images, she writes: “The photographs showed extremes of weather, camaraderie, night work, solitude, bars, decrepit motels, and stark western landscapes. I immediately connected with them emotionally. They all took me back to specific places and states of mind I had been in working as a brakeman in the West. This is why I think of our work as having a shared vision. Joel knows the loneliness of the job and the place.”

Readers new to Niemann’s work may want to start with her first memoir, On The Rails: A Woman’s Journey (originally published under the title Boomer), as it gives a more chronological history of the beginning of her career and experience, particularly when she was learning the skills and craft of working on a switching crew from the “old heads.” While all of her books include a glossary of railroad terminology, Boomer provides the reader a good grasp of how the railroad systems work and what the various jobs entail. It also provides a more comprehensive understanding of Niemann’s railroad work in context to her personal life, including romantic involvements, family issues such as her mother’s slide into Alzheimer’s dementia, and Niemann’s own battles with alcoholism. The essays in Railroad Noir focus more on the later portion of Niemann’s railroading career, including her bout with breast cancer.

Railroad Noir is a complex and beautiful book -- part memoir as told in a series of essays, part coffee table photography book with pictures that tell a visual narrative of their own. Long after you close this book, the stories and images will linger in your brain like an afterimage and may even haunt your dreams.

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Lisa M. Russell said...

Linda Niemann is an excellent graduate writing professor. In her wise facilitation, she nudges stories out of her students.

Edd Fuller said...


Hope you had a good summer and I look forward to seeing what you have in store for this Fall on In This Light.

Railroads and railroad photography are a particular interest of mine and I look forward to seeing how photography and memoir work together in these books.

I am afraid my reading pile is getting out of hand again. Thanks.

Dory Adams said...

Lisa, thanks for stopping by -- I'll bet Linda is, indeed, a wonderful writing teacher.

Edd, good to see you here too! It feels nice to be blogging again after the summer break. My own "to be read" stack is always out of control, but I did manage to read quite a few wonderful books over the summer (some of which I'll be writing about here at the blog).

evf said...

This is wonderful, Dory, the perfect read for my mood right now. I only wish I already had it in hand. I'm sorry I've been away from your blog for so long. It's a beautiful place to visit.

Dory Adams said...

Evf, glad to hear this post struck the right mood -- thanks for being here. Definitely check out Niemann & Jensen's book!