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

greatrailroadIn this lovely book, fourteen-year-old Libby and her family accompany her father as he travels alongside the Union Pacific Railroad as a journalist, to track the progress of the building of the transcontinental railroad in the Great Race between the Union and Central Pacific Railways. The construction of a transcontinental railroad was one of the greatest accomplishments in American history at the time, for it allowed the U.S. to truly settle the West, and transform what was once a treacherous six-month wagon journey into a train ride taking less than a week. (I recommend reading “Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie” by the same author, or “West to a Land of Plenty” by Jim Murphy before reading this one, to appreciate the full value of what the railroad meant to people of the era.)

I grew so fond of each of the characters in this book: imperfect yet lovable Libby, with her passion for writing and her poor cooking skills; her darling companion Ellie, and Ellie’s lady of a mother, Mrs. Rowe;  Libby’s unintentionally mischievous seven-year-old brother (‘he doesn’t mean to be naughty; his problem is that he’s a boy’); her scatterbrained, adventurous father and strong-willed mother, who can’t stand to be apart from her husband; and most of all, Libby’s absolutely charming– and surprising!– love interest, were such a joy to read about and get to know. The author, Kristiana Gregory, described the camps so vividly, I could picture the scenes perfectly in my mind, and almost hear and smell the settings around me.

There is one unforgettably frightening scene where Libby and Ellie sneak into the dangerous “Hell on Wheels” town in the night and are almost assaulted by the men there. There are also sweet and tender scenes between Libby and the love interest in the story (don’t want to spoil it), as well as between her and her little brother, and when she meets her cousin’s wife, a Shoshone Native American, and their baby. Also in this book are Libby’s humorous thoughts regarding Mormons and polygamy, as they spend some time in Salt Lake City near Brigham Young’s estate. As well, historically and politically, the building of the railroads also managed to have its share of greed and corruption– which Libby so bluntly and comically chronicled– as well as danger and tragedy for the railroad workers; however, no major deaths occurred in this story (unlike in most DA books). Overall, a most delightful story capturing the life of a girl during the time of an historic achievement in our country. An excellent addition to the series and a new, fond favorite.