Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Transcontinental Railroad

Photo: Ellan Young Photography
I really don't know how I missed the news that Jean Craighead George passed away on 15 May. She was 92.

My Side on the Mountain remains one of my favorite books, and is one that still circulates frequently enough that I had to purchase a new copy because the old ones were in such tatters.

Most impressively, Ms. George was still writing and has two books that will be published posthumously.

She will be missed.

Wilson, Diane Lee. Tracks. 
3 April 2012, Margaret K. McElderry Books

Malachy, who is barely a teenager,  has left his Irish family in New York City and come west in the 1860s to work on the transcontinental railroad. The family is hurting for money after the death of the father and could use his contribution, but he keeps gambling it away. On his way west, he has picked up a dog, Brina, who seems to be his only friend. The work on the railroad is very hard, but even harder for the Chinese workers, who get the worst jobs (using explosives) and the least pay. One of these workers, Keung (whom Malachy calls Ducks because his name sounds like quacking),  is very outspoken about workers' rights, and also takes an especial interest in Malachy and his dog. Not only is the work physically dangerous, but the men working are often tempermental, and the prejudice against the Chinese workers leads to a variety of difficult situations. Malachy also feels this prejudice but slowly overcomes it, but not quickly enough to keep disaster from befalling some of the workers.
Strengths: Historical fiction can be a hard sell at the middle school level, but the danger of the working situation might intrigue some boys. There have been a few books on Chinese workers in the US during this time period, and this is one of the more accessible for students. I did like this author's I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade (1998)-- there aren't a lot of books set in Mongolia during the reign of Kublai Khan!
Weaknesses: Malachy was a difficult character to understand, and his lack of relationships with other white workers didn't make much sense, even though he was very young.

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