|The Last Spike : Promontory Summit, Utah|
Tracks by Diane Lee Wilson, 276 pp, RL 4
Historical fiction for middle grade readers makes up a slim but important wedge of the genre pie in the world of kid's books. This genre also presents an interesting dilemma since history, while rich with triumphs, breakthroughs and significant accomplishments, is equally crowded with tragedy, war and discrimination. Before writing this review, I went through the list of works of historical fiction I have reviewed here. Most of these books proffer personal struggles, hardships and overcoming of adversities that drive the plot while also providing a rich slice of life from the time period. Having children as the main characters, they are usually peripheral to the intensity of the action of the period and thus the young reader, if not the character, are shielded from some of the more upsetting aspects of the time. However, historical fiction that does not turn away from the uglier aspects of humanity is important and has a time and a place. My children go to a school where, in the seventh and eighth grades, they participate in a curriculum called Facing History and Ourselves which teaches them about racism, antisemitism and prejudice throughout history while also exploring democracy and tolerance. It's an amazing program that addresses uncomfortable and upsetting topics in the context of the classroom, often using historical fiction as a teaching tool. You don't have to be in a classroom to read historical fiction that covers these issues, but I always hope that, when reading a book of this nature, there will be an adult alongside to discuss, explain and make sense of the subject matter. However, books like Diane Lee Wilson's Tracks, Laurie Halse Anderson's Chains and Eugene Yelchin's Breaking Stalin's Nose are excellent examples of historical fiction that reveal the prejudices of human beings and the darker natures that can exist within us in straightforward ways that readers can make sense of independently or with the help of a teacher or parent.
Diane Lee Wilson is the author of a favorite book of mine, I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade, which is set in 14th century Mongolia. While Wilson's books usually feature strong girl characters and horses, Tracks and her book Black Storm Comin', which is about the Pony Express and set in pre-Civil War California, both feature boys - and horses. I love historical fiction, probably because I don't know very much about history. I just get caught up in the time and place and find myself transported in the same way as when I read a great fantasy novel. However, sitting right behind me and staring over my shoulder as I read a work of historical fiction is the specter of reality, reminding me that these things really happened, if not to these exact people. With Tracks, Wilson has written a book that, while it sweeps you along with the sheer power of the feat that these men and boys were performing at a time when our nation was earning its reputation for innovation and greatness, never lets you forget the racism, cruelty and even brutality that we were and are capable of.
Narrator Malachy Gormley is thirteen in 1866 when he leaves New York City to find work laying tracks on the transcontinental railroad and support his mother and three younger siblings. His father, a member of the Fighting Sixty-Ninth, the regiment of Irish men from New York that fought in the Civil War, is dead and the only legacy he has left his son are lessons on how and when to throw a punch, which he is sometimes quick to do. It only takes up a sentence of the book, but the first thing about Malachy's story to make me stop and think comes when Malachy describes the two-month journey, paid for by the Railroad, that takes him down the East Coast with "a tramp across Panama, and then another sail up the opposite coast, along Mexico and California." Not only is it amazing to think that it once took two months to go from one side of the country to the other, but that Malachy does this as a thirteen year old boy. Wilson's writing is intensely descriptive and I often felt like I was right there next to Malachy, riding the train from Sacramento to Cisco, shivering through the bleak and snowy winter as the workers blasted through mountain after mountain and wiping the sweat and grit from me as they laid the last of the track that would join the Central Pacific Railroad line with the Union Pacific Railroad track. In Malachy Wilson has created a flawed, mostly unlikable but very real character. Besides his propensity for fighting, Malachy is a product of his time and place and, as a white boy, shares the prejudices of fellow whites. He is suspicious of the Chinese men who have been hired by the railroad to work, at lower wage and with extra fees for the special food that the railroad procures for them. Their long, feminine braids, their strange straw hats, their numerous tea breaks and their seemingly emotionless faces are just too different to be tolerated and, while Malachy keeps his distance from the Celestials, as the Chinese workers are called, he finds plenty of reasons to scorn them, especially one worker he calls "Ducks," because his given name sounds like quacking to Malachy.
Before he boards the train in Sacremento, Malachy finds a stray dog, names her Brina and brings her along with him. She is well behaved and loyal, but when he sees Ducks petting her and Brina enjoying it, Malachy bristles. Ducks tries to communicate with Malachy, asking him about Brina and the work horse he is charged with, Blind Thomas. Blind Thomas is another amazing character in Tracks. In her author's notes, Wilson reveals that Blind Thomas is based on a horse that may or may not have existed. She wasn't able to find a primary source indicating that a blind horse helped build the railroad, but the stubborn nature and single-minded work ethic of the character that Wilson creates seems to exemplify the power, force and exertion of energy over long days, months and years that went into the building of the railroad. While Blind Thomas doesn't quite serve as a moral compass for Malachy, he is a steadfast companion and the moments that the two share in the story remind the reader that Malachy is still just a boy far away from home. Tracks begins with a prologue that finds Malachy and Blind Thomas, who he has stolen, making their way through the night, searching for Ducks. How he goes from the thirteen year old boy full of loneliness, mistrust, and a bad habit for gambling away all his earnings at cards to an almost sixteen-year old pariah with a sack of stolen gold and all the bad decisions that have led him to this point is as compelling as the race to finish the railroad and the hardships suffered by the men building it. The racism against the Chinese that Wilson weaves throughout her story, from the lower pay, the lesser living conditions and the way that some men turn on them when the railroad is finished to the interesting cultural tidbits, like the lantern kites and the money sewn onto jackets to commemorate fellow countrymen lost in an avalanche to the story of constellations that, when they finally meet up for one night a year, produce a healing rainfall the next day that can be saved and used throughout the year makes up yet another thread of this fascinating book. As an adult, Malachy's bad choices were hard to watch and I read on, wondering when and how he would redeem himself, especially since it often seemed right around the corner. When he finally does, it was satisfying and hopeful.
As the last six miles of track are being completed and the Central Pacific crew is racing to be done before the Union Pacific men, the men, caucasian and Asian, work like a non-stop, meticulously united machine to achieve their goal. As the day draws to an end, Malachy notices that, "The sun crested the sky and began to sink at our backs, and something in the air shifted. We all felt it. Nature had witnessed what we could do and was retreating, giving up. The day was ours to mark for all time." A momentous moment among many in that leave a lasting impression upon the reader in Tracks. Most importantly, Wilson's author's note verifies the historical information contained in the novel and is thought provoking, especially when she notes the prejudicial opinions about the Chinese (as well as prejudice against the Irish, which she includes in Tracks) that "eerily echo those today about Latinos and Arabs and basically any new immigrant group: They're taking our jobs. They're ruining our economy. They're dirty. Drive them out." It is stunning, if perhaps not entirely surprising, to think that, almost 150 years later, as a nation, we still harbor anti-immigrant sentiments.