The Journal of Sean Sullivan Discussion Guide
- Grades: 6–8
About this book
To the Discussion Leader
The year is 1867. Fifteen-year-old Sean Sullivan's wish has finally come true. His father has agreed to allow him to travel from Chicago to Nebraska. Sean will work alongside his father as they help build the transcontinental railroad.
Sean's journal is filled with adventure. Shootings and vigilante justice are common in the makeshift towns that spring up around the railroad construction. Sean details the camaraderie and fisticuffs always present when thousands of men are placed together doing dangerous, back-breaking work for months on end.
The novel is also filled with history. Through the stories Sean's father tells, the boy learns about the Civil War. As he watches the big bosses of the Union Pacific cut corners, endanger workers, and generally deceive the American government, he learns about greed. But, Sean also realizes that he has played a part in something that will change America forever.
Just how important was the building of the railroad? The Historical Note at the end of Sean's journal puts it in perspective. "The completion of the transcontinental railroad in May 1869 is an achievement that is often compared in both scope and difficulty with America's effort to put a man on the moon one hundred years later. This comparison is particularly apt, for the 1969 Apollo space mission concluded a decade that was filled with the same sort of social unrest that pulled our country apart in the 1860s. In the same way that President Kennedy inspired U.S. citizens to rally in support of the space program, Abraham Lincoln urged his fellow Americans, who were then in the midst of a great Civil War, to put their full effort behind the building of a railroad that would connect New York and San Francisco."
Building the transcontinental railroad is a man's job, and Sean Sullivan, a skinny fifteen-year-old city kid, is about to become the newest member of the Union Pacific's team. When he is next to his father, Sean feels even worse because there's no denying the strength and courage of six-foot, three-inch Patrick Sullivan. Sean is thrilled to be reunited with his pa and hopes to make him proud in return. Ever since his mother died three years ago when Pa was off fighting in the Civil War, Sean has hoped to gain his father's trust. Now his dad has brought him West to help build the transcontinental railroad. During his first twenty-four hours at End of Track — the most western point for the Union Pacific — Sean first encounters a man carrying his own scalp in a bucket, then stumbles across another man shot dead in an alley. Afraid his father will send him back to Chicago, Sean chokes back his fear and astonishment.
Sean starts at the bottom of the barrel the water barrel. For more than a month, he delivers water to workers up and down the tracks, a job "reserved for the youngest and greenest boys on the railroad." His next job, "dish swabber," a promotion that exposes him to the filth and hazards of the railroads' kitchens, quickly gives way to another role — butcher. But Sean has his eye on the spiker's job, swinging a maul and driving a metal spike into place. He has his chance with the maul after only three weeks in camp. Michael Kennedy invites him to "give it a swing, there's nothing to it," then starts a spike with two steady strikes. Sean describes the event in his journal: "I got up on my toes and swung as hard as I could. The maul grazed the head of the spike, and it flew sideways down the tracks. What's worse, the handle of the maul smacked across the rail and broke clean off. The fellows were still chuckling as I picked up my buckets and headed back to the wagon."
Sean perseveres through swarms of grasshoppers, misfired bullets, blizzards and runaway trains, winning a promotion to grader, then to snake hunter. Finally, Sean achieves his dream when one of the tough spikers inquires, "You want to see if you can bust another maul, boy?" Sean swings the maul back and drops it down smooth. "A few of the fellows cheered. Off to the side I heard Mr. Casement say, 'Looks like we've found ourselves another spiker.'" Two years later, the tracks are complete, the final spike is driven, the cleanup and repairs have already begun. A stronger, older, and wiser Sean reflects on the changes he's witnessed. "It used to take a half a year to sail the eighteen thousand miles from New York to San Francisco, but these iron ribbons can take a man across this whole country in only a week." Addressing his son, Paddy Sullivan reflects that "building this railroad was something big, Sean. Not only have we played a part in changing this country forever, but I've had the chance to see my water boy grow into a heck of a spiker."
Thinking About the Book
- Even though Sean Sullivan's mother dies when he is twelve, she has had a great impact on him. What are some of the ways Mrs. Sullivan influenced Sean?
- Why are John's letters to Sean so important?
- The one trait Sean does not admire in his father is Mr. Sullivan's prejudice towards Indians and the Chinese. Why did so many men like Sean's father dislike these two groups of people?
- On August 8, 1869, Sean remembers his mother's words, "We are entering the age of the machine, and a man's mind is going to get him a blamed sight farther than his muscles." What did Mrs. Sullivan mean?
- How do Sean and his father change from the way they were at the start of the book? How did building the transcontinental railroad change the United States forever?
- In the author interview for this book, William Durbin says that the one question he would like to ask readers who have read The Journal of Sean Sullivan is, "Are there any lessons that we should learn from this period in history?". How would you answer Mr. Durbin's question?
- Using information from Sean's journal, create a newspaper for the Wyoming Territory. Include some photographs and factual articles as well as human interest stories, crime reports, and the obituary column. Don't forget to include advertisements in your newspaper.
- When Sean's mother gave him his first journal, she wrote this Sir Francis Bacon quote on the first page: "Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man." Discuss what this quotation means.
- Go back and read the descriptions of Sean's jobs. Make a poster for each one to advertise the Union Pacific Railroad jobs available for strong, brave workers. Then hang the posters in the hall and see how many people apply for each job.
- Many websites offer information and pictures on the transcontinental railroad. Start with San Francisco Museum's Driving the Last Spike page. Check out PBS's Railroad Timeline.
- The Journal of Sean Sullivan describes the great railroad race through the eyes of a boy. Now read another book is the Dear America series, The Great Railroad Race: The Diary of Libby West, and see how the same event is described by a girl. Which book did you enjoy more? Why?
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.