The story behind the story
Jean E. Cullander was born in Evanston, Illinois on July 5, 1943, and graduated from Evanston Township High School in 1961. She has a BFA from the University of Illinois with a major in painting (1965) where she graduated summa cum laude; an MA from Stanford University in Art with an emphasis on painting and printmaking (1967); and a PhD in international politics from the City University of New York Graduate Center (1994). She made the switch into international relations because of her concern over the spread of nuclear weapons and the danger they presented to her own children and people around the world. The Train to Skeleton Coast was a finalist in the international Eludia 2015 book award competition. She currently lives in Connecticut.
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The year is 1989 and Maggie Grayson, a doctoral student at Yale University, witnesses a murder and suddenly becomes entangled in an international intrigue where she becomes a target of a rogue, secret intelligence agency of the South African white government. Maggie first discovers the dead body of a dark-skinned South African woman, working as a housekeeper in a small bed and breakfast hotel in Newport, Rhode Island. After reporting the murder to the police, she finds that the housekeeper has brought two children, an eight-year old girl and a two-year old boy, to America with her and Maggie is asked to take the two-year old, Affy, back to his family in South West Africa. Having witnessed the violent murder of his mother, the small boy goes into shock and is unable to speak. Maggie’s maternal instincts immediately take over as she forms an affectionate bond with the vulnerable child. Holding the brown boy in her white arms, Maggie’s thoughts are flooded with images of racism in her own life and these questions permeate the book. In taking the boy to Africa to find his family, Maggie becomes caught up in the independence movement of the country soon to be re-named Namibia. Maggie is asked to take the train to a town located on the Skeleton Coast along the western edge of Namibia to deliver Affy to his family. On the train she meets a handsome African man and becomes caught up with him as they barely escape with their lives when the train suddenly explodes. Her fascination with this tall African leads to a passionate involvement, while her mission to return the boy to his family is cut short as she runs for her life.
As she begins to witness the stories of atrocities under the Apartheid system told to her by people she meets along the way, she inadvertently becomes associated with the rebel movement SWAPO which the CIA has labeled communist. Her actions lead her to sympathize with the victims of Apartheid and she becomes a target of the white, South African-dominated police. The man who murdered the boy’s mother in Newport did so because she had witnessed a high-level political assassination in Africa and as Maggie begins to solve the murder, the assassin is given instructions to kill Maggie.
Meanwhile, a parallel drama is playing out back in Newport, Rhode Island, as the 8-year old girl, Ruby, who also witnessed the political assassination, goes missing. We learn that the couple who were assassinated was the girl’s parents and when two unseemly South Africans show up at the door of the house in Newport where she is staying, the girl becomes afraid they want to kill her too and she runs away. After Ruby has been missing for over three weeks, Maggie returns to Newport to help look for her and finds that Ruby has been hiding in the magnificent Vanderbilt mansion, the Breakers. Now labeled a hero, Maggie returns to Yale only to find that the FBI has been tracking her, naming her a terrorist because of her association with SWAPO and arrests her as she gets off the train in New Haven. A group of Yale students beg Maggie to confront the FBI which has also been eavesdropping on and tracking other Yale students and faculty as subversives. Through surprising twists of fate, the story brings to light the forgotten struggles of Africa’s indigenous people and in a spectacularly beautiful setting, Maggie experiences dramatic encounters with Namibia’s wildlife. Thrown into this adventure, Maggie’s inner journey unfolds as she discovers her own courage in the upheavals taking place in Namibia.
The Train to Skeleton Coast
A Tale of Murder and the Struggle for Freedom
ABOUT JEAN CULLANDER
What was the initial inspiration for book?
The inspiration for the book came in an intense dream. I woke up in a shudder with my heart thumping; the image imprinted in my mind’s eye. I had just seen a woman, all dressed in red,... read more.
Why Newport, Rhode Island?
I had actually attended a wedding in Newport, as described in the book, and had stayed in a Bed and Breakfast, no murders, I assure you. The setting and the majestic... read more.
Who is Maggie Grayson?
Maggie is a graduate student at Yale University and she is in her mid-40s. She has two college-age sons. The qualities of being a mother play an important role in her relationship... read more.
Why Yale University?
Yale, over 300 hundred years old, has a rich tradition in American culture as a prestigious institution. Its architecture, hailing back to Oxford and Cambridge Universities... read more.