Perhaps the most exciting aspect of being a reader of young adult literature is the surge of authors of color getting their chance to tell their story. The vast community that enjoys these varied and amazing books push for boundaries to be expanded and diverse voices to be heard. This Train is Being Held by Ismée Amiel Williams accomplishes this. A contemporary romance set in New York City, the novel explores the rush of new love while never shying away from the exploration of class, race and familial expectations that so many Latinos grapple with on a daily basis.
This is a love story worth rooting for with families and friendships we can all find something of ourselves in.
This Train is Being Held’s protagonist Isabelle, or Isa, is a Cuban-American private school student who is struggling to make her dreams in dance come true while keeping what worries her most about her family a secret. After chance encounters on the subway bring her close to Dominican-American Alex Rosario, she is suddenly forced to face realities she had until then been comfortable ignoring: colorblindness and entitlement, to name a few. Unlike Isa, Alex, a low-income, darker-skinned Latino, has spent his life learning about the need to code-switch, knowing that most typecast him based on racist stereotypes and don’t take the opportunity to engage with him and discover who he really is and what his interests really are. With more than three years of encounters that lead to open hearts, dances, poems and friendship, Alex and Isa grow together and apart in order to find what truly matters in life and in love.
Williams explores difficult topics, such as mental illness, race, social status, academics and gender norms, with grace and care. She uses the biggest overarching theme of familial expectations to also display the intersections these pressures have on our lives, especially when compiled with issues like race or socioeconomic status. For instance, Alex’s dad is set on his success as a baseball player. As a father, he will accept nothing less and has focused on making Alex overcome racial discrimination and barriers by ensuring he’s the most skillful player on the baseball field. Similarly, Isa’s mother passively accepts her pursuit of ballet, all the while pressuring her at every chance to strive for a career in medicine. This unfortunately not only ignores Isa’s phobia of blood but also her passion and amazing talent at dance.
But there are stark differences in Alex and Isa’s family and life conflicts. Isa is a white Latina living on New York’s affluent Park Avenue, and Williams never allows the reader to forget the privileges she and her family have because of their race and class. Even when faced with hardships, Williams shows that these privileges are still present. For instance, Isa’s faux racial colorblindness, the “I don’t see color” sentiments many are familiar with, initially prevent her from recognizing Alex’s racial struggles and his family’s economic background.
Williams allows the reader to grow with the characters.
Another significant topic Williams takes on, and one that is not always treated appropriately in young adult or romance genres, is the topic of virginity. Isa’s best friend shares her fears of telling her new boyfriend about her past sexual experiences for fear of judgement. Too often virginity is fetishized and there exists a pressure for young women and individuals with vaginas to live up to the idea that they are only “pure” if they have saved themselves or abstained from sexual behaviors. Isa and Alex ultimately support Chrissy in whatever decision she makes regarding disclosing her past (or not) and reiterate to her that anyone who wishes to be with her should always accept her fully for who she is. Ultimately, Williams treats sex and virginity similar to how she handles other tough topics in this charming story: intelligently and gently.
With This Train is Being Held, which follows Williams’ debut young adult romance novel Water in May, the author weaves a heartfelt story that explores family and love. She brings up topics that youth will be able to identify with simply and carefully. She provides characters Isa and Alex with arcs that allow readers to visualize how individuals can evolve when they sit with their discomfort, question their ideologies and recognize that some of their long-held thoughts and beliefs could be rooted in ignorance. Williams allows the reader to grow with the characters, making realizations along the way that reassure that we all have things to learn and unlearn and must always keep our hearts and minds open.
This Train Is Being Held is an incredibly readable story with likable and complex characters that make for a fun and important addition to the young adult releases gracing our shelves. This is a love story worth rooting for with families and friendships we can all find something of ourselves in.