Review: The Great Railroad Race

The Great Railroad Race: the Diary of Libby West, Utah Territory, 1868 (Dear America Series)The Great Railroad Race
by Kristiana Gregory

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Great Railroad Race (Utah Territory) / 0-590-10991-X

Another wonderful Dear America book - this one covers the race to connect the opposite ends of the country with a single railroad. Our narrator here is the daughter of an intrepid journalist, who hopes to strike it at least semi-rich by being one of the few to cover the story first-hand. While I recommend the Dear America series for both children and adults, I recognize that the series is primarily marketed towards young children, and I will follow my usual reviewing pattern for marking out things a parent might wish to be fore-warned about.

There's wonderful history to be had here, and the first-hand account of watching the railroad being built is wonderful. The narrator details the cooperation between former Union and Confederate soldiers, and treats with fairness and dignity the situations of the American Indians (who are being displaced by the railroad) and the Chinese immigrants (who are working under harsh conditions to build the railroad). The hasty and sometimes slip-shod manner in which the railroad is assembled is highlighted and the reader will marvel that the end product worked at all. Also much appreciated here is the strong characterization of the narrator's mother - she insists that the entire family will travel with her wanderlust-driven husband, and that is that. It is later revealed that she knows as much about the printing and editing of a newspaper as her worthy husband, and the two make a good team out on the frontier, a welcome change from the standard "mother does the housework and not much else" theme often found in historical literature.

Some things which may not be age appropriate for all children include the death of a small boy who places a penny on the rail tracks only to be killed by the high velocity of the shooting penny when the train strikes it. This is also one of the most 'sexually explicit' of the Dear America novels I have read - the narrator and her friend sneak into the bad part of one of the shanty towns one night and are accosted by drunk men who want to force them to 'dance'. It is only by kicking their way free that the girls are able to escape, and they are very frightened by the experience. Also, Mormons are heavily featured in this installment, with the narrator spending a good deal of time in Salt Lake City and meeting Brigham Young. Our narrator is very interested in how a man can have multiple wives, and she is very distressed to learn that several of her female cousins have entered into plural marriages. She also meets a few Mormon girls her age who wish to be friends. Children may share the narrator's confusion about this complicated issue.

There is one slightly odd thing about this story. A character named "Pete" is featured; Pete is a bearded, stinky old man who lives with the narrator and her family. He served in the war with her father and saved his life and now lives alone with the family, rarely speaking unless spoken to. When the narrator decides to be kind to Pete, in spite of his stench and ugly looks, Pete shaves his beard and suddenly becomes a very attractive, charming nineteen-year-old. This magical Beauty and the Beast transformation is extremely disconcerting to the reader, if not to the narrator (her adjustment to this new love interest takes a mere 24 hours). Pete has been living with the family under frontier conditions with very little privacy for clothing changes, bodily functions, and basic attempts at washing, and it does seem strange that the 15-year-old narrator wasn't cautioned by her otherwise prudent mother that Pete was quite a bit closer to her age than she had realized. It isn't, I suppose, a big deal, but I found it very odd, and parents may as well.

~ Ana Mardoll

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