The Great Railroad Race Discussion Guide
- Grades: 6–8, 9–12
About this book
To the Discussion Leader
Brigham Young, George Custer, Generals Sherman and Grant, and Abraham Lincoln are figures from American history that readers meet in Kristiana Gregory's The Great Railroad Race: The Diary of Libby West. Libby West, along with her brother and mother, accompanies her journalist father as he reports on "the Great Race...the story of the century." As her father telegraphs stories back to the Denver newspaper, Libby offers readers her own account of the race to complete America's transcontinental railroad.
In 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act, he set in motion the Great Railroad Race between the Union Pacific Railroad and the Central Pacific Railroad. With incentives of money and land, the two companies came from different directions to lay the tracks for the trains. The race was not just about the railroad. It was about immigrant workers, broken treaties with Native Americans, and tent cities that sprang up along the railroad construction route. Libby West's diary tells of these historical events and characters. But, it is also a story about friendship, family, and the blossoming of new love, while providing readers with a snapshot of the newspaper industry and journalism in the 1860s.
Kristiana Gregory, author of Libby West's diary and two other highly praised books in the Dear America series, says that as a child she loved history and "...hungered to know what it was really like to live in the 'olden days.'" Readers of Libby West's diary will love history a little more and get a closer look at what it was like to watch the Great Railroad Race of 1868.
1868: The United States had begun to recover from the recent horrors of the Civil War. A major part of that recovery was occurring west of the Mississippi River — more precisely, between Council Bluffs, Iowa and Sacramento, California. For years, the United States Congress had debated the viability of a transcontinental railway, a development that would decrease travel time from months to days for those pioneers who hungered for a fresh start in the unspoiled western territories. Between October, 1866 and May, 1869, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific railroads embarked, in earnest, upon construction of the western portion of this transcontinental competition. The "Great Race" intensified as "Casement's Army" and "Crocker's Pets" quickly closed the distance between the two railway lines. As the workers pushed through mountainous territory to complete an American dream, Libby West and her family were there.
Because her father had always shared his marvelous exploits with his children, fourteen-year-old Libby West accepted adventure as a way of life. Sleeping in tent "hotels" and reading newspaper columns like the Cheyenne State Tribune's "Last Night's Shootings" barely affected her.
During her year's adventure, Libby forms a close friendship with another young girl from Denver, Ellie Rowe, whose father is a surveyor for the Union Pacific railway. Together they sneak out of their tents to secretly observe the forbidden city, "Hell on Wheels," where gambling, drinking, dancing, and danger dwell. Libby meets her Utah cousins: Jimmy, who's married to a Shoshoni Indian, and four of Jimmy's sisters, who are the "plural wives" of Mormon men. Fascinated by the Mormon beliefs, Libby and Ellie pursue some girls, the daughters of Mormons living at Brigham Young's complex in Salt Lake City, to discover what it is like to have multiple mothers.
Through Libby's adventures, readers experience the exhilarating and sometimes frightful rush to complete the transcontinental railway, as well as glimpse the injustices suffered by Native American tribes whose land is seized; and the Chinese and Irish immigrants whose hazardous labor earns them only pennies a day. At the end of the "Great Race," readers still don't know who actually strikes the golden spike. But, like Libby, we are grateful for the adventure.
Thinking About the Book
- What was the reason for the intense competition between the Union Pacific Railroad and the Central Pacific Railroad? Why was there a "Great Railroad Race?"
- How do you think this story would have been different if Pete had told it instead of Libby?
- On New Year's Day, Libby resolves: first, not to gossip; second, to think the best of people; and third, not to be nosy. However, she breaks her resolutions almost immediately. Re-read Libby's diary entries from January 1 through February 10. Can you think of another resolution that might be better for Libby than the ones she made?
- Libby writes in her diary that the two teams of workers are called "Casement's Army" and "Crocker's Pets." Then she comments, "Even though I've never seen Chinese men with my own eyes, I think they wouldn't like to know they're being called Pets" (May 25). Do you agree that the Chinese workers would not like that nickname? Why?
- Libby is a witness to a death. A boy placed a penny on the railroad tracks and was killed. Explain how this happened.
- On August 5th, Libby and her father discuss the newly passed Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which acknowledges that anyone "born in America, no matter the color of his skin or the country his parents came from, is a citizen." Mr. West notes the amendment does not apply to Indians because of General William Tecumseh Sherman's hatred toward them. Libby ends her diary entry by writing, "General Sherman may be the tallest man in the army, but in my opinion, he is small." What does Libby mean? Do you agree with her?
- Libby often finds herself having to look up new words. Here are some of the words she learns. Like Libby, use a dictionary to find out what each of these words means.
- What do you know about the Great Race, the men who built the transcontinental railroad, the Mormon religion, or even gold mining in Colorado and California? Brainstorm topics you and your classmates want to know more about after finishing Libby's diary. Write your questions, then read, research, and write down what you have learned.
- Libby frequently describes the towns and scenery as she and her family follow the Great Race. Create a series of postcards to Annie and Kate, Libby's friends back home. Illustrate them to show what railroad trestles, the "hell on wheels" camps, Salt Lake City, Brigham Young's house, or other scenes look like. Then address the cards and write messages to Libby's friends.
- Kristiana Gregory, the author of Libby's diary, says that one of the reasons she writes for young people is to help them see that there is always hope, somebody to love, and someone to love them. Find examples in Libby's diary to show that Gregory has put these three things in her book.
- In your discussion groups, ask each member to write down the one best word to describe each of the following characters. Share the words you have each chosen and talk about why those words best describe each character.
- Beyond the fact that Pete and Libby are falling in love, why is Pete so important to the West family? See what you can find out about Andersonville Prison.
- The Fourteenth Amendment gave citizenship to everyone born in the US "with all the rights and protections our Constitution has to offer." Did those rights and protections apply to all people? All genders? All ages? Did the rights include voting? An education? The right to live or shop or dine anywhere? Form two teams to debate the effects of the Fourteenth Amendment.
- American history is filled with many tall tale characters such as Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and Mike Fink. The most famous tall tale involving the railroad centers around John Henry. After reading the story of John Henry, try your hand at writing a new tall tale about a character working on the transcontinental railroad.
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas, and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Department of Reading and Language Arts, Rochester, Michigan.