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The Golden Swift
By Lev Grossman
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A lot has changed for Kate in a year. She and Tom are now full-fledged conductors of the steam-powered, animal-saving Great Secret Intercontinental Railway. Life is good!
Or good-ish, anyway. Her uncle Herbert has gone missing, and the worsening climate means that there are more and more animals that need help all the time. How many times does Kate have to save the world before it stays saved?
And her real life isn’t exactly perfect either. She flunked her audition for the junior high musical and got stuck in the chorus, while her archenemy Jag got a lead.
So, out of desperation, Kate breaks the rules and takes the Silver Arrow out on an unsanctioned mission, to find Uncle Herbert and bring back balance to the world. But she quickly discovers she’s not the only one on the Great Secret Intercontinental Railway. There’s a mysterious train called the Golden Swift out there too, with an agenda of its own. Is it an ally? A rival? An enemy? A bit of all three?
The question will turn Kate’s world upside down, take her from the Scottish Highlands to the Australian outback to the bottom of the Bering Sea, and lead her straight on a collision course with the mysterious masters of the Great Secret Intercontinental Railway itself. Because when you're a human being fighting to save nature, are you the hero or are you the villain? There are no simple answers.
The Way Things Are Done
THERE’S A WAY THINGS ARE DONE, AND THIS IS NOT IT.
I didn’t come up with it, Kate thought. I don’t even like their stupid way! But if they came up with it, they should stick to it.
Kate didn’t say any of this out loud—she often felt like she delivered her best speeches in her head, where they didn’t receive the popular acclaim they deserved. She was standing on a cold, rainy sidewalk in downtown Chicago in front of a skyscraper, one of those extremely tall and skinny and futuristic skyscrapers that are the native habitat of the common billionaire.
“Let’s go, Kate. He’s not here.” Her mother was wet and exasperated and generally over it all. “Typical Herbert!”
Kate couldn’t really disagree on either point. This was definitely Uncle Herbert’s address, but the man at the front desk equally definitely said he’d never heard of him. If Uncle Herbert was here, then it wasn’t in any visible or otherwise detectable form.
And also it really was typical Uncle Herbert.
Kate had only just met her uncle for the first time last year, and on the whole it had been a pretty good year since then. On her eleventh birthday, which had ended up lasting for several weeks, Herbert—who was in fact a billionaire—and also it turned out a wizard—had given Kate a steam train called the Silver Arrow. The Silver Arrow was a magic train that had a candy car, and a library car, and an unbelievably cozy sleeper car. It was part of a vast invisible worldwide train service dedicated to helping animals in need, which there seemed to be more and more of lately.
Oh, and the animals could talk. And the Silver Arrow could talk, too. This whole story was so flagrantly implausible that Kate had already resigned herself to never telling it to anybody; she guessed she could file it away with all those great speeches she made in her head that nobody would ever hear. At the end of their first trip, Kate and her younger brother, Tom, were made official conductors of the Great Secret Intercontinental Railway.
But it wasn’t one of those adventures that happens once and then you have to remember and savor and treasure it for the rest of your otherwise uneventful life. Since her birthday, Kate and Tom had gone on about a dozen trips on the Silver Arrow. At first she’d tried to keep a journal of them, but that had lasted about a trip and a half before she got lazy about it, and then some rabbits ate it, so that was that. She guessed she just wasn’t a journal-keeping person. But she’d helped hundreds of animals get where they needed to go, or get away from whatever they needed to get away from, or find whomever or whatever they were looking for. She’d ridden the Silver Arrow down deep tunnels, across luminous blue glacier crevasses, past secret vine-covered temples deep in sweltering equatorial rain forests.
It was everything she’d always been looking for without even knowing she was looking for it. Kate had always thought of herself as the kind of person who would one day lead a secret double life, and she’d figured her second life would probably be something in the superhero or espionage line, rather than the secret-invisible-train-conductor line. But she couldn’t have been happier with how things had turned out.
Or not literally. She could actually have been a little bit happier. Kate wasn’t complaining—it had been drummed into her in Social and Emotional Learning class that complaining was not a productive way to deal with personal challenges, and she figured her Social and Emotional Learning teacher had probably had her share of personal challenges since her name was Ms. Tinkler.
But if Kate were going to complain, just hypothetically, her complaints would have been as follows. There were five of them.
Complaint number one: Leading a double life was nowhere near as easy as it looked. Before all this happened she hadn’t even been that good at leading one life, and now that she had two they had a way of getting tangled up with each other. Problems from one life had a way of following you into the other one and vice versa. For example, Kate was always worrying about a social studies quiz when she should’ve been rescuing a sugar glider from a bushfire in Australia, and then in class when she was trying to remember the cause of the French Revolution (it was poverty), her brain would suddenly choose to worry about how chimney swifts were running out of chimneys to build their nests in.
And what was even the point of leading a double life if you couldn’t use one to run away from the other?
Complaint number two: Tom. Unbelievably, Tom had been showing signs of not being quite as interested in the Silver Arrow as he used to be. In fact he’d skipped the last couple of trips, which she found completely unacceptable on any number of levels. Kate would never dream of missing a chance to ride the Silver Arrow!
But Tom was nine now and big for his age, and he was getting really, really into hapkido, to the point where he’d been saying he didn’t have time for the Silver Arrow. Which Kate pointed out made no sense, because magical trips on the Silver Arrow took no time at all. But then he just said he was “tired,” and what could you say to that?
Admittedly, he was getting pretty good at hapkido. Tom was an upper blue belt now, and they were letting him use the nunchucks, and not just to fool around with but to actually hit people. And they hurt, as she found out when he hit her with one, which, yes, she had invited him to do, but only because she’d always thought they were just toys! Regardless: Kate couldn’t understand what he could possibly be getting out of hapkido that would be more important than the Silver Arrow. And she hated that. And she hated not being able to understand her own brother.
Complaint three was that she lost out on the part she wanted in the school musical, namely beguiling young heiress Hope Harcourt in Anything Goes. She got put in the chorus instead. And she couldn’t quit now because she’d look like a sore loser. And she was a sore loser! But she didn’t want to look like one.
That had nothing to do with the Silver Arrow, but she was still annoyed about it, so she put it on the list.
Four was that as hard as she worked on the Silver Arrow, as many animals as she helped, as hard as she tried, it was never, ever enough. There were always more animals in trouble. Kate read a lot, and in her experience stories with magic in them usually ended up with the world being saved at the end. But this was different. Kate tried and tried, and was brave, and never gave up, and generally acted like a hero, and still the world wasn’t saved.
She’d developed an unhealthy obsession with the bushfires that were raging in Australia, and she kept scanning news stories for the names of more and more obscure, irreplaceable little animals that were now being threatened with extinction—not just koalas and wallabies but numbats, and quokkas, and dunnarts. She’d never even heard of a dunnart, which was apparently some kind of tiny furry marsupial that looked exactly like a mouse, and of which there were no fewer than nineteen species, from the slender-tailed dunnart to the lesser hairy-footed dunnart. And now they were going extinct!
She felt so hopeless. When she went on her first mission on the Silver Arrow she thought she might actually make things better and bring some balance back to the world, but things had only gotten worse and worse. Adults—her parents, her teachers, the president—always talked about how concerned they were about the environment, what a terribly urgent crisis it was, but none of them ever seemed to do anything about it, and meanwhile every time Kate saw something in the news about ice caps melting or rain forests being cut down or bees disappearing, she thought of her friends, like the white-bellied heron, and the fishing cat, and the polar bear, and she had to leave the room so no one would ask her why she was crying.
And finally, complaint number five was that she couldn’t even go out on the Silver Arrow anymore because Uncle Herbert had disappeared! He was the one who gave Kate her missions. That was how things were done. But she hadn’t seen him for two months, and no one—not Tom, not their parents, not the Silver Arrow, not the porcupine who lived in the woods behind her house—had any idea what had happened to him.
Which meant that it was up to Kate to find him. She would’ve preferred to spend this particular rainy weekend curled up indoors with a book, or making origami boxes out of fancy paper, or drawing exotic flowers from photos she found on the internet, instead of traipsing—traipsing!—around Chicago in the freezing rain in search of her feckless billionaire uncle.
But no one else was going to do it, so it was up to Kate to solve the problem. Because that, all too often, was the way things were done.
The Board of Directors
THERE’S A WAY THINGS ARE DONE
AND THIS IS NOT IT
“I know that! Believe me! I know how things are supposed to be done!”
Kate couldn’t believe a talking train was stealing her private mental speech.
THEN WHY ARE YOU DOING THINGS IN A WAY
THAT IS NOT THAT WAY
“Because the way things are done isn’t working! So. We’re going to make up our own way.”
Kate was crouched in the cab of the Silver Arrow, sweating from the heat, her knees aching, as she scraped and shoved around inside its firebox with a ridiculously long-handled rake to try to get the fire going. It was hard work, and it wasn’t helping that the Silver Arrow was giving her a hard time while she did it.
Tom wasn’t helping, either. He was standing on one foot on the engine’s giant boiler, practicing his balance. It was a hapkido thing.
The problem was that they didn’t have a timetable. Herbert was supposed to turn up at their house once every few weeks to drop one off. He was getting along better with Kate’s parents these days—he was even getting them more interested in the environment. Kate’s parents had wanted to sell off the parcel of woods behind their house, but Herbert convinced them to try “rewilding” it instead. Rewilding meant leaving the land alone and letting it go back to its natural state. There was an endangered dragonfly called a Hine’s emerald that used to live in the area, and Kate’s mom was hoping that if they rewilded their land enough, it would come back. Kate suspected that this was a high-minded scheme whereby her parents could congratulate themselves for not mowing the lawn—and there was some loose talk about “making a small fortune” from “ecotourism”—but in theory she guessed she was in favor of it.
After Herbert’s visits Kate would always find a piece of paper in her room, hidden somewhere weird like under her mattress or rolled up in one of her socks or plastered inside a lampshade. It was high-quality paper, creamy and thick, the kind of paper you’d expect to find a royal proclamation or a doctorate in physics printed on.
But instead it would be a train schedule. It looked something like this:
THE GREAT SECRET INTERCONTINENTAL RAILWAY
THE SILVER ARROW
Serving distressed, displaced, and otherwise imperiled animals
MAKING THE FOLLOWING STOPS AT THE FOLLOWING TIMES:
|Daintree Rain Forest, Australia||4:33 p.m., February 22|
|East Siberian Taiga, Russia||2:30 p.m., February 22|
|Sinharaja Forest Reserve, Sri Lanka||7:12 a.m., February 22|
|Carcross Desert, Canada||6:41 a.m., February 22|
|Western Ghats, India||8:57 a.m., February 22|
|Xishuangbanna Rain Forest, China||12:02 a.m., February 22|
|Maluku Islands, Indonesia||3:11 p.m., February 22|
|Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, United States||1:19 p.m., February 22|
And so on. The stops were always all on the same day, which made no sense, and they weren’t even in chronological order, or anywhere near one another, but that was the GSIR for you. Making sense was not on the agenda. On the appointed day Kate would build up the fire in the Silver Arrow, and lubricate its various bits that needed lubricating, and polish the bits that weren’t already blindingly bright and shining, and off they would go.
But without a timetable, they couldn’t go anywhere. And without Herbert, there were no timetables.
“Ergo,” Kate concluded, “we have to go and rescue Herbert.”
The fire was finally catching, and the cab filled with the familiar savory smell of mingled wood and coal smoke.
YOU HAVE TO GO AND RESCUE HERBERT
“I tried. Want to know how hard I tried? First I Googled ‘Uncle Herbert.’ Then I snuck my mom’s credit card out of her purse and used it to pay $4.99 for a public records search to find his address, which probably wouldn’t have worked if he didn’t have a weird last name, but he does, and I got an address for him.
“Then I used my mom’s credit card to order a book about lemurs.”
HOW DID THAT LAST PART HELP?
“It didn’t. I just wanted a book about lemurs.”
BETTER TO ASK FORGIVENESS THAN PERMISSION
“Exactly. Then I told my mom we were going to surprise Uncle Herbert with a visit, so we went all the way into the city to the address I found, but when we got there, he wasn’t there. They didn’t even know who he was. That’s as far as I got on my own. So now you and I are going to go find him.”
HOW DO YOU EVEN KNOW HE NEEDS RESCUING
MAYBE HE’S JUST TAKING A WELL-DESERVED VACATION
“He doesn’t deserve a vacation. He deserves a kick in the butt.”
WHAT IS HERBERT’S WEIRD LAST NAME
“Yastremszki. It’s my mom’s maiden name. Any other questions?”
Kate closed the door to the Silver Arrow’s firebox with only a little more force than was strictly necessary and started checking half a dozen gauges.
WE CAN’T TRAVEL WITHOUT A TIMETABLE
THE RISKS WOULD BE UNACCEPTABLE
“I accept the risks,” Kate said. “See? I just accepted them. Ergo, they are acceptable.”
I DON’T KNOW WHAT ERGO MEANS
“Well, I feel sorry for you.”
I DON’T THINK YOU KNOW WHAT ERGO MEANS EITHER
“Of course I— Wait. What exactly are the risks?”
I’LL TELL YOU WHAT THEY ARE
WITHOUT A TIMETABLE WE COULD RUN OUT OF COAL
WE COULD RUN OUT OF WATER
WE COULD COLLIDE WITH ANOTHER TRAIN
WE COULD ENCOUNTER A TRACK OUTAGE
IF WE GET IN TROUBLE NOBODY KNOWS WHERE WE ARE
AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST
WE WOULD INCUR THE WRATH OF THE POWERS THAT BE
“Interesting. Who are the powers that be?”
Kate had always wondered who was actually in charge of the Great Secret Intercontinental Railway, but Herbert would never give her a straight answer about it.
THE BOARD OF DIRECTORS
“Well, the Board of Directors has incurred my wrath. Ever think of that?”
YES I DID THINK OF THAT
Kate had had enough of this argument. If it went on much longer, the Silver Arrow was going to win it. So instead of answering, she released the brakes.
Kate still got a thrill whenever she did that. Something about the deep, satisfying snap it made—she’d read somewhere that when sperm whales do echolocation they make a deep click sound, like a bat’s squeak, except so loud that if you were a diver underwater and a sperm whale clicked at you, you would feel the sound resonate all the way through you, right to the core of your being. That’s what the snap of the Silver Arrow’s brakes felt like to Kate. The train began rolling smoothly forward, all 102.36 tons of it, with the precision and delicacy of a cue ball across a pool table.
Tom yelped and dropped his hapkido pose and came scrambling back inside.
WAIT WAIT WAIT WAIT!
WE WEREN’T DONE ARGUING!
“I was done. There are animals all over the world that could die without our help. I’m not going to sit around on my duff any longer not helping them.”
She eased out the throttle. From somewhere the Silver Arrow emitted a hiss of steam that sounded suspiciously like a sigh.
THIS IS ABOUT THE PLAY
Kate’s hand was steady on the reverser as they made the sharp turn past the Achebes’ house and into the damp cold April woods.
“It’s not about the play.”
It Was a Little Bit About the Play
LOOKING BACK, KATE COULDN’T EVEN REALLY SAY WHY she thought she’d get the part. She’d never thought of herself as a drama person before. Or a singing person, either.
Last year, when she was still in elementary school, she’d gone to see the middle school musical, which was Into the Woods. She’d been so swept away that she went back again the next night. It just looked so fun. Everybody looked so confident and grown-up and romantic and happy. They looked like they knew who they were and where they belonged, in a warm, glowing world full of hilariously complicated problems that somehow all worked out all right in the end.
So this year when she saw the poster announcing auditions for Anything Goes, Kate signed up immediately. It wasn’t even a decision. She knew exactly which part she wanted, namely Hope Harcourt, beguiling young heiress.
Part of it was that she was at a new school, and she was still trying to figure out where she fit in. In elementary school she’d always been looking for her thing, her talent—something, anything, that she was good at, that would make her special. And she’d finally found it—boy, had she found it—but then the irony was that she couldn’t tell anybody about it!
So fat lot of good that did. To everybody else she just looked as plain and ordinary as she always had.
Plus she felt like she’d outgrown her old elementary school friends, and she somehow hadn’t managed to find any new friends to replace them with. She wondered sometimes if it wasn’t just a tiny bit the Silver Arrow’s fault—if spending so much time talking to a steam train and saving animals made it harder to relate to her classmates who led normal lives.
But that’s where the musical came in. Being Hope Harcourt would be like being the conductor on the Silver Arrow only everybody would know about it, and they’d be in it with her. And at the end of the show when Hope Harcourt had her happy ending, it would stay that way. She felt guilty about wanting a life apart from the Silver Arrow, but wasn’t everybody entitled to their own life? And to friends who weren’t a magic steam train? She was eleven going on twelve. Sometimes you just need somebody to talk about cat stickers with.
There was just the little business of actually getting the part.
- "This Silver Arrow (2020) sequel retains the magic of the first installment but goes deeper, revealing more of the secretive train world while raising the moral stakes."—Booklist
- "Gentle, encouraging, witty fantasy that may soothe readers suffering from climate anxiety. "—Kirkus
- "The riveting action will keep young readers turning pages, eager to find out what happens next."—School Library Journal
- On Sale
- May 2, 2023
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers