The Great Railroad Race

Why did this book not interest me the way it should? I don’t know. Why are railroads so boring?

The Great Railroad Race: The Diary of Libby West, Utah Territory, 1868, Kristiana Gregory, 1999.

libby west

As a kid, I thought this book was super boring. As an adult, I like it much more, with a bunch of caveats. I think Kristiana Gregory is a great writer, and she did several Dear America books, but for whatever reason, her trio of books that take place in the American West in the middle of the 19th century (Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie¸ this one, and Seeds of Hope) all have very similar voices. Now, the protagonists of the other two books are cousins, so I suppose it’s forgivable, but for whatever reason it just doesn’t work for me in this book. (Also, notably, Gregory likes to link her books together in-universe, which is why the other two books feature cousins that mention each other. But did you know that in the epilogue to Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie¸ one of Hattie’s granddaughters is mentioned as living through the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906? That is a direct callback to one of Gregory’s earlier books, Earthquake at Dawn, where Daisy Valentine, Hattie’s granddaughter, is the protagonist.) But enough about my creepily obsessive rereading of YA books! (That’s a lie. There can never be enough of that. That’s why this blog exists.)

However, while I am already way off track, I’ll get started. Libby is fourteen years old and lives in Denver with her parents and seven-year-old brother, Joe. Her father was critically injured during the Civil War and spent time in a prison camp with his friend Pete, who now lives with them and helps her father put out a small paper. Libby is not Pete’s biggest fan—claiming he is dirty, never bathes, and has no manners. Pete and Libby’s father buy a printing press and plan to take it on the road in order to report on the transcontinental railroad completion, and after an enormous argument with Libby’s mother, they go.

My biggest problem with this book is that it’s one of those Dear America books where nothing much happens and the plot is more “here is a collection of observances on life in the American West during the post-Civil War period, also on how to build a railroad.” Normally I love those books, but this one for whatever reason doesn’t do it for me. Maybe it’s because railroads are super boring, I don’t know.

Anyway, rather than give a complete rundown of the Interesting Historical Factoids Libby notes, I’ll just list them here before getting into the plot:

  1. Horace Greeley’s famous maxim “Go West, young man,” as directed to Libby’s father
  2. Libby sees General Sherman and Ulysses Grant campaigning for the presidency and notes their bad manners
  3. The theory that “Mind your p’s and q’s” is related to newspaper publishing is trotted out, which is doubtful as it dates from the 1600s, but whatever
  4. Brigham Young and the Mormons are well settled in Utah, and Libby wonders about how polygamy works
  5. The 14th Amendment passes declaring that blacks are US citizens, as are Chinese, and because this is a YA book, Libby and her family are of course not even a tiny bit racist.
  6. Libby’s aunt receives a mangler (wringer) for Christmas, and when the women try it out they find it strips all the buttons off all the clothing that passes through it and opt to wring by hand rather than sewing on every stupid button in the house.
  7. Libby gets a new book called Little Women as a gift
  8. The two railroad presidents, Leland Stanford and Thomas Durant, are too drunk at the completion ceremony to actual hit the Golden Spike, and they both miss.

Okay, now that that’s over, we can get to the actual action of the plot. But that’s just the problem! There isn’t much there! Libby’s father and Pete go on ahead, and she and her mother and Joe follow behind by a couple of weeks until they catch up in Laramie. Here Libby makes friends with a girl about her age, Ellie, whose father is a surveyor and making the same trip. Ellie’s family is quite wealthy, but they’re decent people, as is evidenced when Libby’s mother comes down with a terrible fever and Ellie’s mother, Mrs. Rowe, looks after Libby and Joe in the meantime. Mrs. West is ill for two and a half weeks with this fever (God, remember the last time you were miserable, lying-in-bed sick? Now imagine doing that instead of for a few days, for two and a half weeks, far away from your home, in a gross hotel bed, without plumbing or any decent food to eat, and relying on a woman you barely know to look after your two kids? Worst. WORST) but recovers, slowly, and they all head on together to the next stop, Fort Sanders.

Joe gets into so much trouble, constantly, that he makes Libby and her mother insane, but Mrs. West flatly refuses to allow him to become a water boy. (Also, he is SEVEN.) But then Joe befriends another kid and they accidentally cause a small stampede and a bull is flattened by an oncoming train, and Mrs. West wonders if she’ll be forced to relent. Pete gets sick, and though Libby has spent the past forty pages complaining about him (and when she tries to complain to her mother, Mrs. West tells her roundly that Pete nursed Libby’s father through all kinds of disease in the prison camps, and he’s welcome to smell as he pleases as far as she’s concerned), she decides to be the Bigger Person, and….gives him a pail of hot water to bathe with. That’s it. That’s her grand gesture.

Anyway, as they move on, they come to a mobile town of a sort, full of saloons and bawdy houses and other things that cater to railroad workers of loose morals and full pockets, which bothers Mrs. West and Mrs. Rowe in the extreme. You know, this part kind of reminds me of On The Shores of Silver Lake, where Laura’s Ma is so adamant that her girls don’t go anywhere even remotely near the railroad camp, because it’s so dangerous. As it turns out, Ma was 100% correct, because Libby and Ellie sneak out at night and are accosted by rough men in a saloon. Libby’s father catches them and threatens that if they do anything like it, they’ll be whipped and returned to Denver immediately, but doesn’t tell their mothers. Now, if it was my kid doing that and my husband didn’t tell me, I would lose my mind, but it seems to work for the girls because they’re petrified and don’t go anywhere near the place again.

Libby learns at about this point that Pete is only eighteen, though he seems much older, and she remarks that this makes him feel like more of a brother to her than one of her father’s friends. (If you’re wondering, as I was, Pete explains that he ran away from home at twelve to join the army as a drummer boy.) This changes her feelings towards him, and a couple of weeks later she’s wondering if it’s wicked that she spent too much time looking at Pete when he took his shirt off to jump in the river. (Answer: No.) After a couple of months he asks her to go on a walk with him, so it’s quite clear from this point that they’ll probably be getting married one day. (That is, evident to me reading this as an adult who does very little besides read YA. It wasn’t at all evident to me as a kid.)

Libby also gets the job of spellchecking her father’s paper, at least for a few weeks until the paper has to stop production for a while because Libby’s father gets sick again. He suffers from what we would call PTSD today (nightmares in the night, irritability, etc.), and has shrapnel working its way out of his legs, which is mega-gross to think about. He’s doing so poorly that they need to head for Salt Lake City, to see Mrs. West’s brother and family, which Libby is excited about. Unfortunately, SLC is pretty hard for them, since everyone there is a Mormon and nobody is interested in buying any ads in a non-Mormon newspaper. They stay through Christmas, and Libby and Ellie meet a couple of Mormon girls from a polygamist family, and then Libby’s father decides he doesn’t want to be a broke newspaper publisher and sells his printing press to the Daily News.

But before they can go back to the railroad to report on the progress, Libby has a fight with Joe, who runs away after she tells him off for snooping through her diary. Once he’s found, they’re off to Ogden, Utah, which I had never heard of before but Wikipedia tells me was historically the second-largest city in Utah (now passed by Provo). You really do learn something new every day. Libby and Ellie actually go to school for a while and live in a boardinghouse, and Pete continues to take Libby for walks and is, I suppose, very very very very slowly courting her. (At this rate she’ll be thirty by the time they’re married. Get on with it, Pete.) They’re only there for a couple of months, though, because then they’re back to tent living in the spring to follow the railroad’s progress again.

In May they reach Promontory Summit, and….wait. And wait and wait and wait for all the officials to arrive so they can do the final half mile or so. When Libby figures out that the two railroads were intended to lay 690 and 1086 miles each, resulting in a final tally of 1776 miles, like the year 1776, and her father tells her it was designed to be significant, she writes “I guess they had nothing better to do.” Truth.

The Golden Spike is finally driven (and promptly removed, because obviously), and Libby’s family packs up to go back to Denver. That’s the end. Seriously.

In the epilogue, Pete and Libby get married and have five children and Pete works as a newspaper editor, and eventually die in the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918.

Rating: C. I don’t know why I find this book so boring, because it’s right in my wheelhouse, but I just do. Possibly, as I mentioned, I have zero interest in railroads. But otherwise, the story is interesting—I like the characters, I like that it’s about a little older of a protagonist, I like that there’s a tiny romantic plot involved, I like the details about daily life. All the elements are there! For whatever reason, it’s missing the zip that Kristiana Gregory’s books usually have for me, which is awful because her others are just so GOOD. This one, for whatever reason, misses the mark and I can’t put my finger on why. It’s flat—in spite of being well-written and technically interesting—it just doesn’t have The Thing. You know, The Thing where you’re enthralled by a book and can’t put it down? This book has the opposite of that.


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