Kristiana Gregory: It's a lot of fun for me to daydream, to imagine how things may have been a century ago. I clearly remember being fourteen years old myself. Even though Libby was recording events of 1869, many of her experiences are universal; for instance, the fear of her mother dying, or the regret she felt after yelling unkind things at her brother. And with Pete, not until she spent meaningful time with him did her ugly opinion of him vanish. As a young woman I was like Libby, often misjudging people because I hadn't made the effort to get to know them.
RFA & LMP: From the written accounts of the Great Race you encountered during your research, what part was most dangerous for the workers?
KG: One of the most dangerous jobs may have been working with dynamite. Men often made mistakes with the timing and power of explosives.
RFA & LMP: What would your greatest fear have been if you were Libby West, following the progress of the Union Pacific as it rushed to finish the transcontinental railway?
KG: My greatest fear would have been that my curiosity would land me in deep trouble. Libby's unpleasant experience with the drunks in "Hell Town" may have been my own. At age fourteen, the temptation to disobey my parents and do my own thing was strong.
RFA & LMP: Libby's father tells her, "Sometimes history is just lies that men have agreed upon." Is this your view of history? In your research for this book, did you uncover any of those lies?
KG: This is my view, sadly. Perhaps a gentler way to say this is, "Sometimes history is the recording of events or rumors that men have unintentionally agreed upon." With every subject I've researched — from Cleopatra to the Revolutionary War — there has been conflicting information. Sometimes "history" is one person's opinion of an event, rather than what actually took place. Sometimes true events have been distorted or left out of an account to make things look better or worse, depending on the writer and the intended audience. For example, letters to a family member might differ greatly from a newspaper article or a report to Congress even though each tells of the same event. Often, "history" is a problem of mixed-up spellings, dates, or places. While working on The Great Railroad Race, I found Promontory Summit referred to as Promontory Point, when in fact they're two different places.
RFA & LMP: Your historical fiction always has the clear ring of authenticity. How did your living in Salt Lake City near Brigham Young's house and your family trip to the Golden Spike Historical Site help you in writing Libby's diary?
KG: Being able to actually walk in Brigham Young's home and see the remnants of his daily life made history vivid for me. I could imagine all the meals cooked in the well-scrubbed kitchen, and the busyness of his little general store that occupied a corner of the house. Our family trip to Promontory was in August, on what felt like the hottest day of the year. Desert spread out for miles in every direction, and there was no shade except near the ranger's station. When I heard the shriek of a train whistle and saw the replica of Engine 119 chugging toward the summit, I felt a thrill. I could imagine what it must have been like to watch the actual event.
RFA & LMP: If your readers wanted to read one or two other books on the Great Railroad Race, do you have some titles to suggest?
KG: I'd recommend Full Steam Ahead: The Race to Build a Transcontinental Railroad by Rhoda Blumberg, and Westward to Promontory: Building the Union Pacific Across the Plains and Mountains, a pictorial documentary by A.J. Russell with text by Barry B. Combs.
RFA & LMP: If you could ask young readers of Libby West's diary one question after they finished reading your book, what would that question be?
KG: If your father or mother told you to stay away from something dangerous, would you honor them by obeying, even if you didn't agree with them?
RFA & LMP: What is one thing you hope young readers will take with them after reading Libby West's diary?
KG: With regard to powerful railroad bosses, politicians, and army generals: "Great men are not always wise."
Interview conducted 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.