The Great Railroad Race by Kristiana Gregory

The Great Railroad Race: The Diary of Libby West, by Kristiana Gregory, was published in 1999 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5

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 Prairie are 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.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

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Seeds of Hope by Kristiana Gregory

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.

Rating: 4/5

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.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

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Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie by Kristiana Gregory

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.

Rating: 5/5

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.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

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Cannons at Dawn by Kristiana Gregory

Cannons at Dawn: The Second Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart, by Kristiana Gregory, was published in 2011 by Scholastic. It is the sequel to The Winter of Red Snow.

Abigail Jane Stewart returns in this brand-new sequel to The Winter of Red Snow. The Revolutionary War toils on, but the Stewart family can no longer avoid getting involved. Abby’s father joins the Continental Army, while Abby, her mother, and her siblings become camp followers. They face daily hardships alongside the troops and continue to spend time helping the Washingtons. Filled with romance and adventure, Abby’s frontline view of the war captures the heartache and bravery of the soldiers, as well as the steep cost of freedom

Rating: 2/5

Cannons at Dawn is part of the reboot of Dear America, where Scholastic revamped the covers and commissioned several new stories. It’s the sequel to The Winter of Red Snow, and as far as I could tell/remember, it accurately recounts the further adventures of Abigail Jane Stewart as told in the epilogue of the first book.

That’s really the main problem with this book—The Winter of Red Snow, and any Dear America book in general, are ill-suited for sequels since each book has an epilogue that tells what happens to the characters after the events of the book. Cannons at Dawn is a useless book in terms of characterization; since we already know what happens to Abigail and her family, the book gives us nothing new. The only purpose the book serves is to describe more of the Revolutionary War: the betrayal of Benedict Arnold, the French support, the Battle of Yorktown. It’s puzzling as to why Scholastic chose this book to serve as a sequel and why no other book was given one. It also highlights the weaknesses of sequels in a series like this in the first place.

The best part of Dear America is its “day-in-the-life” quality. Extending that in as forced of a way as Cannons at Dawn lessens the impact and makes each book less special—especially the sequel, since there’s nothing special about a story that we already heard at the end of the first book.

I don’t know if I’m making any sense as to my feelings, but basically, I think that for a series such as Dear America, sequels are a bad idea. Needlessly extending one historical event to tell us the continuing story of someone for whom we already know the continuing story makes for a slow, dull book. Not even the historical aspects make Cannons at Dawn appealing to me—not when it goes against the “one and done” aspect of the series in general, as well as makes everything long and drawn-out. Gregory is one of my favorite Dear America authors, but I’m going to pretend this book doesn’t exist in the series.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Abigail becomes pregnant, but the book ends before she delivers the baby. Children’s books don’t usually include things like this, so that’s why I’m stating it as a warning.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“Were you with the soldiers at Stony Point?” I asked.

His green eyes flashed with pride. “Drummer, first class. From the court of King George.”

We stared at him. It took a moment for us to understand.

“You’re a Redcoat!” Sally cried.

He seemed surprised. “You are loyal to the King, yes?”

“No. Never. We are Patriots!”

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The Winter of Red Snow by Kristiana Gregory

The Winter of Red Snow: The Revolutionary War Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart, by Kristiana Gregory, was published in 1996 by Scholastic.

Eleven-year-old Abigail Jane Stewart records the despair and hope of the difficult winter between 1777-1778—when she witnessed George Washington readying his young soldiers on the frozen fields of Valley Forge.

Rating: 4/5

The Winter of Red Snow is the sort of Dear America book that I think about when I think of Dear America: the story of a young girl whose ordinary life is being touched by the historical events going on around her. This book is much less random than, say, Standing in the Light or even Look to the Hills (which was more pointedly about slavery than about any particular historical event), and the combination of historical event and fiction melds nicely. Kristiana Gregory is also quite experienced at writing Dear America books, so perhaps that also is the reason why I felt The Winter of Red Snow meshes better than other Dear America books.

I grew up near Philadelphia and visited Valley Forge, so The Winter of Red Snow touched the nostalgic part of my heart while reading. I thought Gregory hit a nice balance of the sort of awe and patriotism that Abigail might feel for the soldiers, coupled with the frustration and anger as the soldiers looted the homes around them for supplies. And while the story today might smack of a bit too much hero worship to some people, I think the depiction of George Washington and other famous historical figures and Abigail’s reaction to them are accurate for the time period.

The thing I perhaps most appreciate about the Dear America series, especially one so nicely melded as this one, is the combination of history and narrative that it gives. It’s so much easier to remember history when there’s a story attached to it, as opposed to random dates and names. Perhaps that’s why I know so much about history despite having stopped taking history classes after my sophomore year of college. I don’t remember much about what I learned in those classes, but I remember all the books I’ve read that describe the events that I learned about.

I’m very familiar with The Winter of Red Snow, both in terms of setting and the book itself, as it is one I read many times growing up. Perhaps that’s why I feel so favorably towards it (although those feelings pale in comparison to my two favorite Dear America books, Seeds of Gold (Gold Rush) and One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping (World War II)). I think that Gregory depicts the setting accurately, down to the reactions of the people and the descriptions of the hard winter of 1777-1778. I also think the story of Abigail integrates well with the historical event itself; it seems much more cohesive than other Dear America books.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“Who are these dear children?” said one of the women coming over to greet us. She was about my height, extremely plump, and had a friendly, smiling face, though I must admit she was not at all pretty. (I did not like her wide nostrils nor the mole on her cheek.)

“Ma’am,” said Billy Lee, “these here are Missus Stewart’s girls, those that keeps your husband’s shirts, ma’am.”

This was Lady Washington!

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