This is a transcription of Hudson River Rail Excursions & Two New Books — 10 February 2023’
Melissa: Coming up, a real-life story of a daring escape.
David: A magical-realist take on what makes life worth living.
Melissa: Plus, our distraction of the week. I’m Mel.
David: I’m Dave. This is the library of lost time.
Melissa: I just learned about a remarkable story from American history that I knew nothing about. It’s told in a new book by Ilyon Woo called ‘Master Slave Husband Wife.’
Melissa: In 1848, an enslaved couple in Georgia decided to escape together. Their names were Ellen and William Craft. Ellen could pass for white, so she disguised herself as a white man with injuries. She wrapped her arm in a sling and applied poultices to her face. She bound her breasts and wore men’s shoes with an extra inch built into the soles to make her taller. With tinted glasses and an extra-tall silk hat, she looked like a respectable gentleman. Her husband William? He posed as her slave.
Melissa: To get from Georgia to safety in the north, they had to travel more than 1000 miles in trains, carriages, and steamboats. The first leg of their journey was the train. And they had to separate! William was forced to ride in what was called the Negro car. Ellen was in first class. Just as the train was about to depart, man sat down next her. Peeking at him from under the brim of her hat, Ellen realized he was a friend of her enslaver, and she’d just served him at the house the night before. The story goes on from there with all kinds of close calls and tough decisions.
Melissa: Nothing in the book is fictionalized. Every description and line of dialogue comes from historical accounts, including a book the Crafts wrote in 1860. So, this is a little bit of a spoiler, but it’s so lovely, I need to tell you about it. Neither Ellen nor William could read or write when they started out. When they finally emigrated to England, they learned to do both. In a morning show interview, the author Ilyon Woo goes to an archive and sees documents written in Ellen’s hand. In just a few months, she learned to write beautiful script. And she and her husband wrote their own story.
Melissa: They were ridiculously brave and shared a lifelong love for each other. I can’t wait to read more of their story. The book is ‘Master Slave Husband Wife’ by Ilyon Woo, and it’s out now.
David: Jonathan Carroll has a new book out. It’s called ‘Mr. Breakfast.’ Jonathan Carroll is a fantasy writer who works in magical realism. His books frequently start in our place and time and then go off in unexpected directions. ‘Mr. Breakfast’fits that description.
David: It’s about a guy who is suffering a mid-life crisis. He’s a comedian, but that’s going nowhere. The love of his life has just left him. So he goes out and buys a brand-new, lipstick-red Ford Mustang convertible. And he hits the road. He’s on the east coast and hoping to decide what he’s going to do with his life before he gets to California.
David: And then he does something he’s never done before. He gets a tattoo. He’s talking to this friendly tattoo artist in North Carolina. He picks something from a photo of her work. It’s a bee inside a frog’s stomach, inside a hawk’s stomach, inside a lion’s stomach.
David: That sets off an extraordinary chain of events. One of the things that does is gives the comedian the gift of seeing – in real-time – three different lives that are available to him. The choice is up to him. He can continue with his life now or choose a very different one. But once he’s chosen, there’s no telling what will happen next.
David: Neil Gaiman said Mr. Breakfast was a ‘A beautiful, brilliant, meditation on art, love, inspiration and what makes life worthwhile.’ This is ‘Mr. Breakfast’ by Jonathan Carroll.
David: And now, our Distraction of the Week. [magical sound effect]
Melissa: I think it’s pretty common knowledge around here that I love trains and stories set on trains. We devoted a whole Strong Sense of Place episode to great books about trains. I think everyone is familiar with ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ by Agatha Christie. But there’s also the noirish novel ‘The Lady Vanishes’ by Ethel Lina White and the modern adventure story ‘The Dining Car’ by Eric Peterson. That one is perfect for foodies, too!
Melissa: If you’ve ever wished you could jump into the pages of one of those books or time travel back to the golden age of train travel, I’ve got a day-trip for you.
Melissa: You can take a one-day train journey on a Hudson River Rail Excursion. Back in 1948, this train was known as the 20th Century Limited, It was billed as the world’s most famous train. When passengers boarded this train bound for Chicago, they walked down a red carpet at Grand Central Terminal in New York. Along the way, there was 5-star service and I can only imagine, plenty of hijinks and romance.
Melissa: Now two of the vintage cars have been restored. This train is made of the art deco, shiny silver, Pullman cars of your dreams. The excursions start in New York City at Moynihan Train Hall in Penn Station. Passengers are invited into Amtrak’s exclusive Metropolitan Lounge to wait for departure. Then you’ll step aboard one of two historic cars — the Hickory Creek and the Tavern-Lounge No. 43. The train route heads north toward Albany, chugging alongside the scenic Hudson River. Lunch and cocktails are served on board! When you arrive in Albany, there’s a stopover for a few ours, then you’ll head back to the city during sunset.
Melissa: Sounds great, right? Here’s some more info to sell it! I did a little googling, and the bookstore voted best bookstore in Albany is just 15 minutes from the train station, so you could hop in an uber, do a little book shopping, and then get back on the train in plenty of time with a new book!
Melissa: We need to talk about the two restored train cars. The Hickory Creek is the last car on the train. The walls are almost all glass, so you get a panoramic view. There are couches and art deco carpeting. It looks like the ideal place to sip a martini and hatch a plot. AND passengers in the Hickory Creek car get a 4-course gourmet meal cooked by the chef in the on-board kitchen. It’s pretty swanky.
Melissa: However, the Tavern-Lounge No. 43 is super social. There are big picture windows and the car is lined with art deco easy chairs that face each other. There are no reserved seats, so passengers are encouraged to mix and mingle and trade seats for different views. Lunch in the Tavern-Lounge is a buffet, and there’s also a bar. In my imagination, this is where the dame with moxie shares a drink with the handsome hero.
Melissa: I watched a video by the woman behind the YouTube channel My Vintage Love. She and a group of friends dressed up in ’40s clothes and took the excursion. It looks very dreamy.
Melissa: The dates for spring and fall excursions were announced recently and tickets go on sale February 17. If you have any interest in taking one of these excursions, you need to put the date on your calendar. Last year, the entire inventory of tickets sold out in two minutes.
Melissa: They doubled the number of excursions this year, so that should help. But if you want to get tickets, you want to be online at 10:00 a.m. on February 17.
Melissa: Visit strongsenseofplace.com/library for more info about the Hudson River Rail Excursions, and the books we discussed, including links to a nice long excerpt from ‘Master Slave Husband Wife’ and a fantastic interview with the author.
David: Thanks for joining us in the Libary of Lost Time. Remember to visit your local library and your independent book store to lose some time yourself.
Melissa: Stay curious! We’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Adam Elmquist.
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