Published in 2013, Last Train to Omaha centers around protagonist James Milligan, a thirty-five year old architect in Chicago, who's been traumatized and deeply wounded by the loss of his best friend, Stephen Pike, who died at the age of 18. As a result, James suffers from intense emotional pain which has lasted for nearly twenty years. His only outlet seems to be helping veterans like Martin Diggs, who have experienced the horrors of war, at the Aaron Milligan Palliative Care Center hospital, where his parents and sister also work. James is referred to as "The Shepherd" at the hospital because of his role helping patients who are close to death. Although James appears to have a gift aiding the dying, he's been unable to live his life fully because of the trauma he experienced as a teenager. He's bound by a past that continues to haunt him, even though his family--especially his sister, Kitty--have been supportive. James has been closed to all relationships since Stephen died, but one day he meets Rebecca, the nurse who will be replacing Kitty (because Kitty's almost ready to give birth). Although Rebecca is attractive, charming, and compassionate, and there is romantic potential between them, James is still aloof and distraught and emotionally unavailable. Will James ever heal emotionally and psychologically? There's a truckload of tension and drama.
What did I think of this book? I'll cut to the chase because this is a rather long post, which also includes an informal essay by the author, and a giveaway. I had a feeling this would be a good book, but I didn't know just how good it would be. It surpassed my expectations. Last Train to Omaha is profound and poignant, intelligent and thoughtful. From the first page, I was an attentive and eager reader. Gradually, as the story unfolded, I learned more about each of the main characters, including Stephen, and how he died. The author has an exquisite ability to animate her characters; they are real people, with strengths and flaws. I became emotionally invested in the main characters, especially James, Rebecca, Kitty, and Martin, who's particularly charming.
Ann Whitely-Gillen is a superb writer. It was hard to believe that this was her first novel! She makes us think about how deeply past events, especially horrific ones, can affect us. Last Train to Omaha is also a lovely tribute to our veterans, who have suffered greatly for others. As I mention in my introduction to Ann's guest post, Last Train to Omaha is a story about accepting the past and moving forward. Having read the book, I can now add that it's also about accepting the responsibility to live life more fully, to experience our emotional, physical, and spiritual journeys more completely.
"The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”
~ Eleanor Roosevelt
In the introduction of Last Train to Omaha, Ann wrote that she had a vivid dream which led to the writing of this book. I found this remarkable, and asked Ann to tell us more about the dream, which starred the main character in the novel, James. She talks about the dream that became her book, below.
AWG: One of my all time favorite Hollywood movie directors, Billy Wilder, once said, “You have to have a dream so you can get up in the morning.” I can honestly say that I took his advice to heart upon hearing the news that I had breast cancer. My initial state was that of shock and anger. Life seemed to be rolling along normally for everyone else around me, while I became paralyzed with fear and anxiety.
In the mornings, radio announcers would come on with their usual jovial chattiness. The sound of garbage trucks wheeling by juxtaposed with school children and their parents hustling about to catch the morning buses fueled my isolation. In the evenings, I lay awake staring into nothing, longing for the trivial worries that used to keep me up before my new status as a cancer patient. One night, during my usual fit of insomnia, I picked up a book that I had been putting off reading (thanks to my denial) entitled The AntiCancer Book by David Servan-Schreiber—a cancer survivor himself. Each night I would devour the words on the pages—taking down notes on nutrition and the science behind the body’s ability to ward off disease.
Eventually, I came to a chapter in the book that talks about spirituality and death which was written to aid the terminally ill and their respective family members. I decided that fear would not keep me from reading this portion of the book as I was determined to find peace with my newfound status. After all, a lifetime of stress and anxiety was likely the culprit to my disease in the first place (in my opinion) and I desperately wanted to manage it once and for all. As I started to read I became enthralled with the concept of living towards death, particularly where Dr. Servan-Schreiber talks about Dr. Scott Peck’s strategy to coach his terminally ill patients through the dying process. His premise was based on the poem by Carl Sandburg entitled “Limited”—Life is the great train speeding through time and space and we are all passengers.
I fell asleep peacefully that night and had one of the most vivid dreams I recall ever having. In my dream, a young man is by the hospital bedside of a dying veteran. He is speaking softly to the man—comforting him. I cannot hear words but I can sense the presence of death in the air. I can also feel anxiety surging through the young man’s body, as if suddenly I am transformed into him. I see him walking down the long hallway of the hospital and I can smell the typical hospital scents. He arrives at another veteran’s bedside and begins his vigil all over again. He tells this patient about his best friend who was killed in a tragic accident when he was a teenager and how he has never been able to get over it. The veteran, unconscious, is not aware of the young man, but still the young man unloads his pain as though he can hear him.
I awakened to the usual sound of the radio and in a haze, wondered if I had been transported into another time and space—-Was I there? Did I know this person? He looked like John Cusack? Did I recently watch one of his movies? Baffled by the bizarre dream (albeit it wasn’t my first experience with my eccentric subconscious) I started to talk to my husband about the man in my dream. The more I spoke of him, the more a story started to flow and without even knowing it. I had described the entire plot to Last Train to Omaha. I can still recall the look on my husband Doug’s face when I was describing this to him. When I finished he said nothing for a moment. Then—he grabbed my shoulders and looked me in the eye and said, “Annie, you need to write about this. You really have to write this story.”
When my husband headed off to work that day, I was left to my own thoughts again only this time, they weren’t riddled with fear and anxiety. Perhaps a part of me was James (the young man in my dream) and maybe, just maybe, I needed to face a part of myself I had always wanted to but never knew how. I feverishly started to write out James’s biography. I ran the concept of his life by my best friend, Laurie, who along with Doug, nudged me long and hard to keep going on this project (despite it being my first time writing a novel and not really knowing anything about how to go about doing it!).
In the end, my book was written, edited and published and I had overcome my cancer and all of the fear and anxieties that came along with it. It was a dream that truly changed my life and as Wilder put it so many years ago—was the sole reason for my being able to “get up every morning” during the some of the darkest moments of my life. For this, I am incredibly grateful.
Ann, thank you for describing how your dream changed your life and became your book. I once had a dream which gave me a sense of being transported into another time and space (to the future), but that's a story for another day, perhaps. Your dream must have been particularly memorable and moving! I think many of us would love to have a similarly dynamic and detailed dream that we could then turn into a book (which would of course require a lot of work).
Once again, the author is graciously offering a copy of Last Train to Omaha as a giveaway to one of my readers (U.S./Canada only).
- To enter this giveaway, simply leave a comment.
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- For one more chance, leave a comment on Ann's guest post, and indicate that here.
Enter by 5 PM PDT on Monday, September 9. One winner will be selected randomly and announced on Tuesday, September 10. Good luck to my readers!
Thanks for reading! Your comments are welcomed.