Tracks, by Diane Lee Wilson. Juvenile historical fiction.
I'm having a little trouble deciding just how I feel about this book. I think that it's very strengths are what make me feel a little ambivalent: Tracks is historically accurate in its depiction of the prejudice and cruelty of many of the people of the time all too well--and the main character doesn't escape his time.
It is 1866, and 13-year-old Malachy has signed on and come west from New York to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. He's big for his age, and is the man of the family since his father died in the Civil War, so he needs to make some money. Certainly Malachy thinks he's a man, but his decisions aren't always rational, and his judgement is poor in certain areas. His connection, and ours, to the family back home seems tenuous at best.
Nonetheless, Malachy sticks it out through the winter, even though it means working as the only white man with a crew of Chinese laborers. From the beginning, Malachy, like most in his time, has viewed the Chinese with fear, suspicion, and contempt. He mocks their language, their clothes, and their customs. At the same time, he is drawn to them (their food certainly smells better than that the railroad provides for the Irish workers), especially one young man he calls "Ducks," due to both the way the language sounds to him and his own inability to pronounce the man's Chinese name.
As the book unfolds, Malachy and "Ducks" keep crossing paths. . . and Malachy meets offers of friendship and life-saving actions with suspicion, contempt, and ill-treatment. This is what was hard for me. It's realistic. . . but it doesn't make Malachy a completely likeable character. Without including any spoilers, he does some other things that are pretty unlikable, too, though to his credit he regrets them, at least at little.
On the other hand, Wilson manages to make us feel Malachy's confusion and reluctant regret just enough that we don't hate him. I just want him to grow up and get a clearer vision (a clearer vision, I must add, than any of the adults around him seem to have). The only friendships Malachy seems to have that are untainted by one player using the other are those with animals. In the end, it is the way he treats the horse, Blind Thomas, that makes me feel the boy might be worth letting grow up.
Tracks isn't a happy romp through history. But in the end, I think the story works well, both as a story and as a documentation of a key moment in the development of our nation. The writing is strong, plotting clear. Four stars.