Asterisk denotes entries on real places.
The furnishings within the hospital car are rudimentary but not primitive, reflecting both the era and place and the middle-class status of the riders. Riding atop the roof and in the dangerous spaces between train cars are other people, presumably poorer and more desperate, of whom readers catch brief glimpses. The division is more significant than it first appears. People inside the hospital car are trying to hang on to what they have, be it General Malacara’s big gray motorcar or Matilde Reyes Téllez’s caged canary. The peasants and migrant workers, lacking land, have nothing to hang on to. The author, as a supporter of Pancho Villa, is sympathetic toward the latter, but his focus during the train journey and in the novel is on how the minor functionaries are not certain where their own best interests lie.
The train’s jerky motions and belches of smoke form a metaphor for the Mexican Revolution, whose turmoil lasted many years, with noise and action obscuring the hoped-for social reform. Outside, the train, as it travels all night and early morning, is a landscape of distant gray hills, mesquite-dotted valleys, and bright yellow-painted houses. If the train symbolizes the wars wracking Mexico, the scenery may stand for the land’s eternal value, serene and impervious to history. One passenger–the attorney Donaciano Rios–sees it differently. Unable to sleep, Rios looks out the window and imagines telegraph pole shadows becoming attacking soldiers. With daybreak, he finally sleeps, but when the passengers leave Irapuato, he is still so shaken he forgets his expensive leather travel bag.
*Irapuato. Provincial market city in west central Mexico where the train makes an unexpected stop, and its passengers disembark. Most decide to go into the city’s center, as the train’s stop promises to be lengthy. Carranzista troops are rumored to be closing on Villa’s rear guard outside the city, and the rebels are preparing to abandon the city. The train’s passengers know this only by seeing the panicked Irapuato residents loading their belongings into carriages and carts, preparing to flee their homes, just as the train’s passengers themselves did the day before. Nevertheless most of the passengers go to the market–an enclosed square full of soldiers and peasants, overripe fruit and farm produce, and useless toys. While the Reyes Téllez women buy supplies, the merchandise rapidly disappears. Soon the crowd disappears as well. The rapid changes that war, and even rumors of war, bring occur before the characters’–and the readers’–eyes. Nevertheless, the women stay focused enough on the main chance to persuade the doctor to buy the daughters some fine footwear at a boot shop.
Irapuato resembles most cities in the path of war. Mishaps–such as a tire blowout on the general’s car with no tools left to fix it–occur several times. However, Rubén Reyes Téllez is able to find a former schoolmate who claims to know General Alvaro Obregón, who is rumored to be advancing on the city. Nobody in town knows what is really going on, and few tell the truth about where their loyalties lie. Meanwhile, trains full of troops leave the local station, puffing black smoke. The book’s last scene shows Pancho Villa in his own Pullman car, pulled by a shiny locomotive with an eagle decoration, leaving Irapuato. On this day, he may be the only character who knows where he is going to be the next day.