The Great Railroad Race: The Diary of Libby West, by Kristiana Gregory, was published in 1999 by Scholastic.
I’ve mentioned before that I think Kristiana Gregory’s Dear America books are some of the best in the series. Seeds of Hope and Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairieare among my favorites. Gregory seems to understand a balance of slice-of-life and history is needed in order to make these books shine.
That being said, The Great Railroad Race is a bit of a downer. While an important period of time, there just aren’t enough things that happen. It’s certainly very informative, but it’s lacking a little sparkle, in my opinion. There’s too much of Libby blushing about Pete and not enough about the politics and culture of the time. Gregory does include some things about the conflict with the Indians, as well as mentioning the Chinese that worked for Central Pacific, and there’s a great deal of information about what it was like near the railroad. But it’s too much in the background, I guess—it reads too much like information and there’s not enough immersion.
I did like Libby, though, with her matter-of-fact comments. Gregory did a good job of inserting the sort of opinions a girl would put in her diary, such as her thoughts on the President, the Indians, and the culture of the time. I’ve complained before about the protagonist simply being a vehicle for historical information, or for not being present enough in her own story, but there’s none of that here.
The Great Railroad Race definitely isn’t the worst of Dear America, but it’s not really near the best. It’s a good, average book in the series. The historical information is interesting, but not as immersive as others. Libby is a great protagonist, although she spends a little too much time talking about her feelings for Pete. It’s not my favorite of Gregory’s books.
I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl, by Joyce Hansen, was published in 1997 by Scholastic.
I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly is a delightful story about Patsy, a freed slave who is struggling to find her identity and place in society. I knew very little about the beginning of the Reconstruction era that took place in the South after the Civil War, such as the government’s dealings with the freed slaves, so it was interesting to read this book to find out a little more.
Historical details aside, the heart of this book is Patsy’s story, as it should be. The best Dear America books are those that aren’t just there to give information about a particular time period, but actually tell a story through the diary entries. It seems pretty straightforward when I say it like that—why wouldn’t these books tell a story? But A Light in the Storm and a couple other Dear America books that I have read failed to move beyond the diary entries as a mouthpiece for the setting. I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly makes Patsy, rather than the setting, the center.
I always have a soft place in my heart for protagonists who outwardly appear weak or are looked down upon, but have inner strength that shows itself in various ways (that almost never has to do with physical strength). Patsy, with her stutter and her seemingly “slow” mind, outwardly appears slow and weak, but inwardly she’s sharply intelligent—which shines when she’s doing what she loves. Patsy overcomes not only her stutter, but also her former status as a slave, and chooses for herself a name and a position the process of which is truly heartening to experience.
After so many disappointing Dear America books, I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly was a delight, with a character-driven plot, a delightful protagonist, and a timeless message. It sheds light on an era that I didn’t know much about, but still remembers that it should also be a story, not just a mouthpiece for history. This book will likely remain a stand-out for me among all of the Dear America books.
When Will This Cruel War Be Over?: The Civil War Diary of Emma Simpson, by Barry Denenberg, was published in 1996 by Scholastic.
After the Native American books, I think When Will This Cruel War Be Over? is the next most notorious Dear America book. This one, though, is notorious for reasons that I don’t quite agree with. The main reason people seem to be up in arms about this book is the narrator’s, Emma’s, treatment of her family’s slaves. See, Emma actually treats the slaves well and even teaches the children to read and write. However, there’s still a chilling underlying inferiority applied to them, stated quite matter-of-factly and spouting “Christian” reasons for it. The main outcry against this portrayal is that people are upset that the author portrayed Emma as educating her slaves and being “nice” to them, which implies that the author is saying that slavery really wasn’t all that bad.
However, that interpretation is pretty nonsensical if you think about it. This is a Civil War diary of a Confederate girl. If Denenberg chose not to have the family abuse their slaves (presumably because of the audience), that does nothing to undermine the fact that Emma’s opinions about slavery are wrong. It does nothing to hide the way Emma talks about the slaves around her as if they were worth less than her, or how she thinks about them as if they were an alien species.
And if people are upset that children reading this book would absorb Emma’s thoughts and think slavery is fine or that the South was justified, then again I point out the words “Civil War” on the front. If the child doesn’t know about the Civil War and the different sides that were fighting, and that Emma is wrong, then that’s not the book’s fault.
And if people are upset that children reading this book might feel sympathetic for what happened to the South and to Southern families during the Civil War, then those people are unfeeling and heartless. Just because the Confederates were wrong does not mean they did not suffer during the war, and that does not mean we can’t feel sympathy for the people whose lives were upended and who lost family members.
I’m getting off my soap box now and moving on to the actual mechanics of the book.
So, When Will This Cruel War Be Over? is plagued by similar problems that plagued Denenberg’s other Dear America book, So Far From Home. The protagonist is whiny, too verbose, and does almost nothing except mope for the entire book. There is very little action in the book—all Emma does is react to the things happening around her. In addition, Denenberg’s choice to make the Simpson family religious is irritating, as he doesn’t explain the topic with nearly enough nuance or information and merely perpetuates stereotypes. I’ve already talked about Emma’s attitude and the portrayal of slavery as a whole, so I won’t address that, but that was by far the least irritating thing of the book in comparison to the pacing and the plot.
It’s a shame that both Civil War entries in the Dear America series are terrible. It’s like both authors were too nervous to actually delve into some good material. And now I’m scared that Denenberg’s One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping isn’t as good as I remember it being, based on his track record so far.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Warnings: Confederate view of slavery and of the Civil War.
The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow: The Diary of Sarah Nita, a Navajo Girl, by Ann Turner, was published in 1999 by Scholastic.
The narrator describes her experiences as her Navajo tribe is forced to relocate by the U.S. Army in 1864 New Mexico.
The Dear America series is fairly historically accurate at times, but I know there are a few entries that are panned widely for their inaccuracies. The most notorious is My Heart is on the Ground, which I’ll be covering when we get there, but I’ve also heard that The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow has its problems. And there are certainly others besides those that have been criticized for their portrayals of history (such as When Will This Cruel War be Over?, which, again, I’ll be covering when we get there).
I won’t really go into the cultural or portrayal problems with this book; that has been done far more extensively in other places by Native Americans. From my perspective, Turner does a fair job portraying some cultural aspects of Navajo life (in comparison to books that have perpetuated bad stereotypes), but there are others where even I can tell she either glosses over them or twists them entirely. It’s interesting because the notes in the back indicated she did research, and even consulted a Navajo artist about the book. I’m wondering if the audience of the book put some sort of limit on what Turner thought she could and should portray, which is a shame if true.
My main problem with this book—and most people’s, I would argue—is that it is simply a poor depiction of The Long Walk. I know this is a children’s series, but Turner was far too nice in her portrayal. The inclusion of a kindly soldier, while perhaps true to history (though anyone that kind who is in that position needs to explain why he’s even taking part at all), softens the atrocities that happened on the trail, such as leaving the elderly, the ill, and the pregnant behind (if not downright shooting them, as is portrayed—“off page”—in the book). Sarah Nita’s “grin and bear it” attitude (more like “tell a story and bear it” attitude), which may actually work for some instances, only serves to make it seem as if the Navajo eventually became content with their situation. It seems to me as if Turner completely changed the entire tone of the Long Walk.
That’s really the problem—the tone seems off. The Long Walk was something terrible, but Turner’s approach makes it seem as if it really wasn’t all that bad. Even when she portrays things like pregnant women being shot, and the vague “the men can be cruel to our women” comments, there’s too much kindness, too much happiness, too much softening of events. Stories hold a lot of power, and can help in troubled times, but using that idea makes it seem as if Turner is proverbially patting people on the head and saying, “There, there. It wasn’t all that bad.” The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow is simply an unrealistic presentation of the Long Walk, one that is inaccurate, far too happy, and, yes, disrespectful to the people who had to go through it.
A Light in the Storm: The Civil War Diary of Amelia Martin, by Karen Hesse, was published in 1999 by Scholastic.
A Light in the Storm is very reminiscent of Standing in the Light or All the Stars in the Sky—an interesting look at the historical time period, but overall seemingly unnecessary. It’s interesting to read about the conflict in Delaware, a slave state that didn’t join the Confederacy, and the way that conflict is mirrored in Amelia’s parents is well done, but this book doesn’t really deserve the title of “Civil War Diary,” in my opinion. It’s more about lighthouses than anything else. Of course, there is that north/south tension that exists, as well as some other issues (common-law marriages, abolitionists, runaway slaves, etc.) pertinent to that time, but I felt as if the epilogue taught me more about the Civil War than the actual diary did.
Sometimes it does feel as if these Dear America books are a little random in terms of setting and material. I really don’t think this story about a girl who helps with the upkeep of a lighthouse during the time of the Civil War is particularly inspiring or memorable. It does tell you a little bit about the attitudes in Delaware, which is perhaps what Scholastic and the author were trying to highlight, but all the same, A Light in the Storm feels like a particularly useless, unmemorable book in the Dear America series.
In addition, much like So Far From Home, the epilogue of this book is strange. Mostly because Hesse marries off the protagonist, but then has the husband go west while Amelia stays at home, never to see him again. Why? Is that supposed to be representative of reality? Or is that just to reiterate Amelia’s dedication to the lighthouse? Why not have the husband work side by side with her? What is even the point of an epilogue like that?
Anyway, A Light in the Storm details a little about the beginnings of the Civil War and the tension that tore the nation apart, especially in border states like Delaware, but as a story it fails to hold on to that historical setting and instead tells a jumbled tale of lighthouses, divorce, and vague conflict. It’s a book I forgot as soon as I finished reading, and it’s definitely not a standout in the series.
A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl, by Patricia C. McKissack, was published in 1997 by Scholastic.
Having secretly taught herself how to read and write, Clotee, a brave twelve-year-old Virginia slave, witnesses the horrors of slavery and eventually becomes a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
A Picture of Freedom is a fantastic book on slavery for children. It can be hard to find the right balance of age-appropriateness and realism when it comes to topics such as slavery, but McKissack details exactly what is necessary in order to present slavery in a way that’s clear, but not too harsh for children.
There’s not much violence or brutality at first glimpse in the book, but Clotee’s life, which seems almost like a normal servant’s life at first, gradually unveils itself as part of the dehumanizing reality of slavery. McKissack carefully, but purposefully, portrays a slave being beaten to death, slaves being married against their will and desire, slave mistresses and mixed-race children, and slaves being separated from their families. She expertly relates all the unfairness and inequality of slavery in the day-to-day scenarios and events that happen in Clotee’s life.
Besides her portrayal of slavery, McKissack also does quite well with other historical details as well. The Underground Railroad is, of course, a big fixture in the book, with the undercover abolitionists whose goal is to help slaves escape and the need for fixed stops and conductors to help the escapes. The Gospel songs and coded lyrics of the black church of the time were also included, which I thought was a nice touch. It also helps explain why so many Gospel songs talk about going to heaven. And I enjoyed that McKissack didn’t make all the Southern white characters slave-owners and racist, as it added even more realism.
A Picture of Freedom is an excellent book for teaching children about slavery. It’s not too dark or brutal, but still covers heavy topics. It also covers the development of Southern Gospel and of the roots of songs in slavery. Clotee is also a great protagonist: hopeful, kind, determined. Her grace and her kindness towards her captors in small moments are some of the best parts of the book.
Seeds of Hope: The Gold Rush Diary of Susanna Fairchild, by Kristiana Gregory, was published in 2001 by Scholastic.
Susanna Fairchild and her family are on board a ship sailing from New York to the West, where they plan to start a new life in Oregon. But tragedy strikes when Susanna’s mother is lost to the sea. Hearing stories of great wealth, Susanna’s physician father decides he wants to join the hordes of men rushing to California to mine for gold.
While I wouldn’t call Seeds of Hope a sequel to Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie, Gregory does connect the two books together by having the Fairchilds be related to the Campbells. It isn’t necessary to have read Prairie, of course. The inclusion of the Campbells is more of a bonus to readers who have read Gregory’s Oregon Trail entry first.
This is another of my favorite Dear America books (I really am a fan of Gregory), partly because of the purple cover, partly because it’s well-written and goes into a lot of historical detail. I learned more about the Gold Rush in this book then I did in Rae Carson’s Walk on Earth a Stranger, which is also about the Gold Rush. The book definitely doesn’t pull any punches; it opens with a death, and includes amputation, hangings, betrayal, and theft, as well as veiled clues about prostitution. What I like most about the Dear America series is that it does not sugar-coat or hide anything that could have happened in that time period, it merely mentions it in ways that are appropriate for children.
The novel also conveys how atypical and dangerous it was for two young women to be on their own during the Gold Rush, yet also takes the time to describe not only the kindness of strangers, but also the steps Susanna and Clara took to protect themselves. And there’s never any underlying threat that makes one worry about their safety throughout the book; again, this is a book for children, so while it’s mentioned what Susanna and Clara do to protect themselves from prowlers and thieves, there’s never anything too dark that is hinted at.
I have a feeling that Gregory’s Dear America books will be the stand-outs for me in this series; she seems to have achieved the knack of writing memorable characters and conveying the historical time period accurately and interestingly. Seeds of Hope is another great addition to Dear America, one I remember fondly.
All the Stars in the Sky: The Santa Fe Trail Diary of Florrie Mack Ryder, by Megan McDonald, was published in 2003 by Scholastic.
Florrie finds the adventure of a lifetime along the Santa Fe Trail, meeting new challenges and dangers, after her mother decides to move her family from Missouri to New Mexico. Starting their journey from their home in Missouri, Florrie Ryder and her family are headed towards the promise of a new life in Santa Fe. As they cross the Great Plains of the Midwestern prairie, fording rivers and climbing mountains, the Ryders encounter endless hardship as they undertake this great adventure.
Dear America loves its Western Expansion stories, and All the Stars in the Sky takes us to New Mexico on the Santa Fe Trail. This book is slightly unique in that it’s the first (of what I’ve read) that features a stepfather, and McDonald actually demonstrates the tension and confusion that can result from having a new father rather well. It also has some good historical details and the mixing of Mexican, Native American, and American is done well enough that it gives a good picture of the mixing of cultures.
Unfortunately, for the most part, the book reads a lot like a copy of Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie—except not nearly as memorable or as well-written. It’s another “on the trail” story, one that’s not really necessary. I think it would have been better to have something much more similar to Seeds of Hope (a review to come),which has a minimum amount of traveling and describes more of what happens at the destination. I think that format also would have emphasized more of the culture and the environment at the time. I do like that McDonald featured what she did, but I think it could have been more successful in a different fashion.
Because of its similarities—and inferiority—to Wide and Lonesome Prairie, and its lack of truly memorable or stand-out events, All the Stars in the Sky is, sadly, forgettable. I liked the different depiction of the family unit, and I felt McDonald was mildly successful in imbuing her story with cultural aspects and historical details, but I just felt as if it could have been even more successful if McDonald had chosen to emphasize more of Santa Fe and less of “trail life.” However, I did really like the font used for the title and for the diary entries. I am a sucker for appealing, sharp font.
So Far From Home: The Diary of Mary Driscoll, an Irish Mill Girl, by Barry Denenberg, was published in 1997 by Scholastic.
In the diary account of her journey from Ireland in 1847 and of her work in a mill in Lowell, Massachusetts, fourteen-year-old Mary reveals a great longing for her family.
So Far From Home recounts not only the Irish potato famine that ravished Ireland (that killed about one million people), but the harsh work environment and living conditions that awaited the Irish immigrants in America. Denenberg also offers a look at the “cradle” of the Industrial Revolution, the Lowell textile mills.
Denenberg only superficially sketches a picture of the desperation and determination of some immigrants—desperate to work, determined to send money home for the families—and how business owners used that to their advantage. He does capture this well, though this Dear America book is weaker than others. I wish he had also focused on the way the Irish were treated beyond work environment—there is next to no mention of Catholicism (a strange religion to Protestant New England) and though there is some mention of Mary being bullied by other girls, there is no indication that it is her ethnicity that is prompting it.
Denenberg mostly focuses on the textile mills and their dangers, though I feel he could have done much more. It seems in his determination to portray as much as possible of that time period, he missed out on depth and richness. Mary is a phlegmatic protagonist, there only as a vehicle for the viewer to experience the time period. She has no characterization, no “body,” no memorability. This is further accentuated by the epilogue, which is the most depressing and least developed epilogue of a Dear America book so far. It seems even Denenberg didn’t know what to do with Mary.
It’s hard for me to believe that So Far From Home is written by the same author who wrote One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping (one of my absolute favorite Dear America books). So Far From Home is good for a general look at the Irish potato famine, Irish immigration, and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, but Denenberg misses many opportunities for lasting impressions and Mary is a forgettable character.
Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie: The Oregon Trail Diary of Hattie Campbell, by Kristiana Gregory, was published in 1997 by Scholastic.
Thirteen-year-old Hattie Campbell’s father dreamed of a new life in Oregon. He dreamed of free land, mild winters, and good soil. He wanted to leave behind a life in Missouri marked by an increased population, high taxes, and sad memories of young children dead from swamp fever. Reluctantly, Augusta Campbell agrees to join her husband, and Hattie and family find themselves on a wagon train traveling the Oregon Trail. Hattie’s diary entries tell a story of daily encounters with death: a baby, an old man, river drownings, dead oxen. Such sadness is countered with Hattie’s observations of love, the miracle of new life, and the kindness of people who help each other through desperate times. The Oregon Trail and Hattie’s fellow pioneers help her to face her fears and emerge a stronger young woman. Hattie’s exciting journey to Oregon is one marked by geographic peaks and valleys as well as the peaks and valleys of emotions the pioneers experienced on their grueling trip.
I believe Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie was the first Dear America book I owned, and, as a result, it’s the one I’ve read the most. Hattie’s trip across the Oregon Trail never grew old for me, and with each read I grasped some aspect that had alluded me the previous time.
There’s lots of tragedy and death in this book, as you might expect from an account of the Oregon Trail. There is not much on the actual incentive to go West—there’s a brief mention of “manifest destiny”—nor is there a whole lot on conflicts and tensions between the Native American tribes and the travelers, but Gregory’s extensive historical notes in the back of the book do address these issues. First and foremost, this is simply the diary of a young girl on her way to Oregon, and it reads exactly like that. The voice of Hattie is perfect, and the voice of the author is distant, if it’s even discernible at all.
Tragedy aside, there’s lots of heartwarming instances in this book, as well as a valuable lesson on forgiveness and friendship. In a day and age where novels that feature bitter people getting their “comeuppance” by the people they’ve hurt, Hattie’s interactions with Mrs. Kenker, the grieving hoarder, is a welcome relief. The people around Hattie help her understand, and she uses that understanding to show compassion. It’s a beautiful message, and one that is badly needed today.
Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie is one of my favorite Dear America novels. It is seamlessly integrated, pulls no punches in terms of historicity, and is memorable, exciting, tragic and heartwarming. There’s a reason Gregory’s Dear America novels are some of my favorites—she’s captured the appropriate balance and atmosphere of these books perfectly.