Generations, Wrecks, and the Great American Novel: A Review of Jonathan Evison’s “Small World”

Small World

Jonathan Evison has called it a vision quest. Hell, he’s even said he’s taking a shot at the Great American Novel, when referring to his seventh novel, Small World, a multiple perspective, multi-generational story about a western American train about to crash. We follow the lives of several characters in 2017-2019, with chapters included from their ancestors back in the 1850s. What unites them is their western journeys and desires to make something better for themselves. Evison’s big-hearted American epic delivers contemporary characters with their pioneering pasts, and he pulls it off without preaching or pandering. While Evison has used different timelines in novels like West of Here and Legends of the North Cascades, Small World feels bigger and more in keeping with our post-pandemic future. It’s a Dickensian 19th century throwback, grappling with big American themes and ideas: multiculturalism, westward expansion and Manifest Destiny, gold rushes, technological advances, homesteading, slavery, immigration, bigotry, and regeneration through violence. It’s a timeless American story, with vivid well-rounded characters, who have a lot to tell us about the world we live in today as well as the one we’ve inherited from the past. Small World is a great ride into the complicated, dark hearts of the American story, and it reads like Evison’s best work, to date. 

A snapshot of the book comes into focus in the opening chapter. We learn Walter Bergen, ironically on his last day as an Amtrak engineer, has had a momentary lapse and faces the consequences of a train wreck:

Afterward, Walter dazedly navigated a world wrapped in gauze: a chaos of colored lights assaulting the darkness like some horrific disco, the squawk of radios punctuating the silence, as the dim but unsettling knowledge of his own negligence settled in. Even in his fog, Walter contemplated the passengers: Flowers, and Tully, and Chen, and Murphy, more than just names on a manifest, but faces in the broken mirror of Walter’s confusion, people from all over who had bought tickets in good faith, only to see their lives rent suddenly and irrevocably from normalcy. Walter could not help but wonder what circumstances, what decisions, had delivered them all to that moment.

Small World fleshes out the journey to this moment of crisis. The book is really about the circumstances of these families, their manifest destinies, if you will. In that short opening chapter, you see so much of the world we lived through in the pandemic. People wounded, listening to a world of squawks and tweets, lights flickering out into the darkness. People on the train, like so many immigrants to America, who purchased a ticket in good faith, only to watch their dreams delayed or derailed entirely. Perhaps these delays will be only temporary, a minor setback in some cases. Perhaps they reveal something deeper and darker at work. Evison focuses on the Bergen, Tully, Chen, and Flowers families brought together in a crash, as the readers move from 2017 to 2019, back into their American origins in the 1850’s. Their histories lead them to this same place, a small world indeed, but one we’d be able to understand and empathize with more, if we only looked back to the similarities of our collective pasts. 

Walter Bergen’s descendants, Finn and Nora, are from Cork, Ireland. The two immigrants become orphans, get separated, and find diverging paths towards their American dreams.  Finn’s destiny tied to the transcontinental railroad that Walter is about to retire from. Jenny Chen works in mergers, corporate killings in 2017, but her relative Wu Chen was a forty-niner, who successfully built a grocery empire, after having to revenge murdered friends in the wild west. Laila Tully escapes her abusive partner to find a new start elsewhere, and we learn John and Luyu Tully, her family, were homesteaders in the same boat, from the Miwok and Washoe tribes, struggling to escape racial prejudice and injustice in the mid-19th century. Brianna and Malik Flowers, mother and son, struggle to make ends meet, as Brianna tries to support and promote Malik’s promising basketball and academic career. The Flowers are descended from George Flowers, an escaped runaway slave once named Othello, trying desperately to avoid being taken back into slave system in the 1850’s.  

The book churns and builds on the stories of these Irish, Chinese, Native American, and African American families, as we see how their stories bring them together and pull them apart. Small World reminds us, without over-sentimentality, that we’re on this metaphorical train ride together, and things can go off the rails sometimes. And yet, there’s a power in understanding the crisis of a moment, choosing to come together, and collectively rising to its challenges. Small World celebrates diversity and finds strength in the core value of belonging in an American democracy. It celebrates the restless yearning of the Western spirit and the power of wanting something better for yourself and your family.

Now, it’s not anytime soon that the debate over the GAN will slip off our radars or go away entirely, whether we like it or not. Ever since John William De Forest coined the term in 1868, writers have set their sights on capturing something about the country that is both timely and timeless. Small World has big ambitions, and massive shoes to fill, but it does make a strong case to be considered seriously. This is a timely book for the age we live in, with some memorable characters, dark plot twists, and unresolved issues. Just like the American story itself.  Each family harkens us back to where we came from, and provides a reminder about the strength in sticking together, even when we’re facing down a wreck, or an inevitable, unavoidable delay to our dreams of progress. 


Small World
by Jonathan Evison
Dutton; 480 p.

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.