Silent Passengers Summary
by Larry Woiwode

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Silent Passengers Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Set on a high-plains ranch, the summer retreat of a Silicon Valley family, “Silent Passengers” explores personal tragedy from a perspective that is intimate and introspective. Ostensibly the Steiners have purchased their summer home to enable Mr. Steiner to spend quality time with his children, nine-year-old James and twin daughters, but on the afternoon in question he lies isolated in the twins’ bedroom, napping off the aftereffects of excessive beer consumption while his family visits a neighboring ranch to ride horses.

After Steiner’s wife, Jen, and their children dismount from their ride, one of the horses, an Apache, hooves James in the chest, and the boy is knocked unconscious when his head strikes the ground. Apprised of the accident by a neighbor’s phone call, Steiner recalls the final words that he spoke to James, a dismissive “I don’t care” in response to his son’s query about whether to go with the girls or remain with his father to help repair a broken tractor. As he races to the emergency room, this memory torments Steiner, as does his regret about drinking, a habit he had promised to avoid while on vacation.

Ultimately, this is a story about caring, hope, love, and resurrection. The father who said he did not care cares deeply. Following a doctor’s pronouncement that James will likely remain comatose, Steiner and his wife fall to their knees in an anguished embrace suggestive of physical if not verbal prayer. When they rise in unison, Steiner’s next action is to lift James out of his labyrinth of tubes and deliver him to his mother’s lap, where Jen cradles her son. Instinctively, the boy raises his arms to clasp his mother’s neck. On the day following their reenactment of his conception and birth, James attempts speech. Steiner, awakened as well, realizes that he and his wife have been silent passengers on their son’s quick descent into and slow deliverance from darkness. Though he may never return to mental and physical wholeness, James’s awakening to consciousness is sufficient cause for Steiner’s joy: “That’s enough, he thought. . . . it was enough to have the child with them, alive.”

Following a week of physical therapy, their son is brought home to the ranch to continue his recovery. Wearing a harness to aid mobility, a wobbly James is attached to his mother’s steady hand by a leather strap, a symbolic umbilical cord. Undeterred, the boy runs downhill, mother in tow, in the direction of their own grazing horses. The image panics Steiner, who still fears his son’s mortality. A sudden gust of wind raises skyward the hair on the heads of his family members, and this natural phenomenon, suggestive of threads connecting earth to heaven, and emblematic of life after death, transforms Steiner’s parental dread to one of benevolent acceptance.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIX, August, 1993, p.2038.

Boston Globe. September 7, 1993, p.55.

The Christian Science Monitor. September 21, 1993, p. 11.

Library Journal. CXVIII, July, 1993, p. 124.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 22, 1993, p.6.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, September 19, 1993, p.12.

Publishers Weekly. CXL, May 24, 1993, p.66.

San Francisco Chronicle. September 19, 1993, p. REV5.

USA Today. September 28, 1993, p. D6.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, October 3, 1993, p.4.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Silent Passengers” is the deceptively simple story of the gradual and initially uncertain recovery of a young boy from an accident, as seen through the eyes of his father. Steiner is the middle-aged owner of a silicon-chip company on the coast (which coast is never specified). His distant ranch appears to be something between an avocation and a hobby; at any rate, he is not very adept at handling the necessary chores. Just before the accident, he is desultorily attempting to get a tractor to work, a task a neighbor eventually accomplishes. Regardless of how he may appear in his company, he does not seem to be a very forceful figure...

(The entire section is 1,153 words.)