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The Journal of Sean Sullivan: A Transcontinental Railroad Worker

Review

The Journal of Sean Sullivan: A Transcontinental Railroad Worker

At the conclusion of A LIGHT IN THE STORM: THE CIVIL WAR DIARY OF AMELIA MARTIN, one of the characters goes to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. This action-packed account tells how men built that first railroad from Nebraska to California in the years after the War Between the States. Narrator Sean Sullivan, an Irish-American teenager who lays tracks and pounds railroad spikes with his widowed father, feels like he's "playing a direct part in tying this country together." 

This fictional diary covers two years, from 1867 to 1869. Sean witnesses a truly wild West, where buffalo herds still roam, outlaws populate makeshift towns, and angry Native Americans attack white intruders. He gets accustomed to rowdiness among his short-tempered coworkers and risks injury from the heavy hammers and explosive nitroglycerin used in construction. When he's not hard at work, he writes letters to his younger brother John or reads popular fiction by Jules Verne and Mark Twain. 

William Durbin (author of THE BROKEN BLADE) imagines Sean as a brave and down-to-earth kid, not unlike Gary Paulsen's wilderness heroes, and he sets the scene with prints and photos of real railroad work crews of the 1860s. In a historical afterward, Durbin takes a white settler's point of view, writing, "At its best, this new railroad proved the theory of Manifest Destiny --- the concept that it was our God-given right to claim the land west of the Mississippi --- but at its worst, it represented unbridled greed." Readers might not agree that Manifest Destiny was ever "proved," and they should question the "our" in that sentence, which doesn't account for the Transcontinental Railroad's mistreated Chinese laborers or to the Indian tribes displaced by whites. 

Durbin also reveals the hazards of pioneer life, as when Sean comes upon the grave of a young girl along the rough Oregon Trail. (Readers wanting more information on the terrors of pre-railroad America should look at Marian Calabro's gripping history tale, THE PERILOUS JOURNEY OF THE DONNER PARTY.) The Transcontinental Railroad enabled easier, faster travel across deserts and mountains, and this fact-based story explores how men put that railroad together by hand.  

Reviewed by Nathalie op de Beeck on September 1, 1999

The Journal of Sean Sullivan: A Transcontinental Railroad Worker
by William Durbin

  • Publication Date: September 1, 1999
  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Scholastic Inc.
  • ISBN-10: 0439049946
  • ISBN-13: 9780439049948