Denis Johnson

Train Dreams

  • This summary of Train Dreams includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

Train Dreams Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Train Dreams by Denis Johnson.

The novella Train Dreams, by American author Dennis Johnson, was first published in the Paris Review in 2002. It was published as a book in 2011 and was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist. The story follows an orphan living in Idaho from 1890 to 1960. Johnson, who died of liver cancer in 2017, was a greatly esteemed playwright, essayist, and novelist who may be best known for his 2007 novel Tree of Smoke, which won The National Book Award.

Themes of Train Dreams include isolation, the closing of the American West, the joy of a simple life, and perseverance through man’s fundamental alienation.

The novella opens to 35-year-old Robert Grainier taking part of the possible murder of a Chinese worker who stands accused of stealing from a train service in northern Idaho. Grainier and a group of other men are about to throw the worker down a 60-foot waterfall, but the dexterous individual evades them; some of the men even applaud his nimble escape.

After the failed murder, Grainier buys sarsaparilla (a soda) for his wife, Gladys, and for a toddler at home, named Kate.

Grainier, along with the railroad gang, takes on more risky missions, such as testing the brakes on a train over an incomplete bridge to see if the brakes will stop the train before it falls into the river.

Grainier takes on work cutting down trees. He enjoys being in the woods, but is warned by a veteran tree cutter, Arne Peeples, that the woods aren’t your friend: Arne once saw a giant tree break out of its strappings on a truck and roll over six horses, killing them instantly. Arne is from Arizona and worked in the mines down there. Because of his age he doesn’t do much physical labor, but he’s a daredevil of sorts who’s willing to set up dynamite while clearing new paths through trees and mountains.

Everyone thinks Arne will die from one of these dangerous explosions, but he ends up being knocked in the back of the head by a large bough, and succumbs to the injury a few days later. During his funeral, Arne’s life is thought to be exemplary because he never cheated anyone and worked hard each day. The lumber men, around 40 in number, want to mourn but can’t take off much time as WWI is still going on and they have to meet the demand for spruce wood.

The novella flashes forward to 1962 (or 1963, Grainer isn’t overly concerned about the year). He watches younger men building the highways that will mark up the nation. In achronological order, Grainier also thinks about seeing the Fattest Man in The World at a fair in the 1950s, and running into Elvis Presley in 1927.

Chapter Three is about Grainier’s childhood. Around the age of 7, Grainier arrives in Fry, Idaho, as an orphan. In 1899, the towns of Fry and Eatonville consolidate to form Bonners Ferry. Grainier “[gets] his reading and numbers” at the Bonners Ferry school. He quits school as a prepubescent. He spends his days taking on odd, temporary jobs and fishing by himself.

In his late twenties, Grainier meets his future wife, Gladys. Grainier has earned the reputation of being a solid man who makes good on his promises, is honest, and doesn’t drink liquor (an important quality, as he is living during Prohibition). They meet at a Methodist church. They have a summer romance, and soon agree to marry.

In 1920, Grainier comes home to find his property has been burned in a massive fire. Because the town is in slender Moyea Valley, no one is able to escape the fire. He understands that this likely included his wife and daughter.

For the next few months, Grainier scavenges around the area. Everyone advises him against exploring the ash-ridden landscape, but his grief forces him to be alone. He finds no sign of his wife or daughter, except for a bonnet floating in the wind one day (but even this may have been a delusion).

Over time, animals repopulate the valley and plants regrow in the area. In fact, a couple seasons after the terrible fire, Grainier realizes that the valley is once again beautiful. He builds a new cabin, this time using stone foundations.

While reconstructing the cabin, Grainier befriends a Kootenai Indian who goes by Bob. Years and years pass, and the next thing Grainier hears about Bob is of his death: he got drunk for the first time ever because a group of Canadians (who, during Prohibition, were thought of as alcohol experts) fooled him into believing that lemon juice would cure the effects of alcohol. A drunk Bob wandered onto the train tracks and passed out. Overnight, he was run over by at least four or five trains, and people didn’t notice until a flock of crows descended on him.

The narrative then skips to four years, and then seven years after the death of Gladys and Kate; Grainier continues to have nightmares about them.

Grainier adopts a large, male dog “of the far-north sledding type” who serves as his loyal companion for years. The narrator says that Grainier never saw the ocean, though he travels to several locations in the western U.S. Then, in November 1968, Grainier dies in his sleep, and nobody thinks to search for him, as there’s no one in the world to miss him. Nearly a year passes before some hikers notice a smell, call a doctor, who writes a death certificate, and bury him.

The novella ends with the narrator describing Grainier’s impression of a circus show in 1935. He and an entire audience are taken with the image and sound of a “wolf-boy” howling into the distance. Once the memory is over, the narrator concludes this book with, “And suddenly it all went black. And that time was gone forever.”