Book review

Stop the Train by Geraldine McCaughrean (2001)

Want to know what it was like trying to set up a frontier town out in the wild west a hundred years ago?

It was hard. Very hard:

She lined them up and looked them over: Sunday clothes outgrown, hand-me-downs too big, bodies surviving on rabbit stew and grasshopper cake.

Cissy Sissney travels with her parents by train to Florence, where her father has bought a plot of land to build a grocery store:

Cissy turned her back on the train and looked around her.
Florence did not exist.
How could it? Nothing yet existed of the state which was to be north-west Oklahoma. It was a dream in the minds of fifty thousand hopefuls. The 168-acre plots which would one day be farms were still uncultivated scrubland, without farmhouses or corrals. Its towns were double plots of the same sun-baked land, their marker flags a different colour, maybe, but their grass the same parched prairie yellow.

The only thing that makes it possible to settle in Florence and build a town is the railroad. The train will bring goods and people in and take them out again. Without the train, Florence is just Nowhere in the middle of Nowhere, out in the desert.

So it is unfortunate that within days of their arrival, the hopeful new residents of Florence have made an enemy of the Chairman of the Red Rock Railroad Company:

'He says there will be no Florence Station on the Red Rock Railroad Line. He says it and he means it. From here on out ... the trains won't be stopping at Florence. Ever.'

They face a devastatingly difficult time. They must build their town and plant their crops, they must survive the first winter, and every single thing they use must be brought in by cart from the nearest township four hours away. It is clearly unsustainable. The people must either, somehow, persuade the train to stop at Florence, or give up and go elsewhere.

Pioneers are tough people. At least, the Florentines are. They plan to make the train stop at Florence, but it is not a simple task. As time goes by and their financial and moral resources fail, their actions become more and more desperate.

I loved this story. In my dreams I think I would have made rather a good pioneer myself, but I'm not sure I could ever be this tough. The suspense nearly killed me as I waited to discover whether the train would ever stop at Florence.

What can I read next?

Geraldine McCaughrean has written many, excellent books for children, vivid and dense with description. You might be interested to look at this one:

If you like children having adventures in a massive landscape, you could look at this story by Eva Ibbotson:

If you enjoy the description of pioneer life, I'm sure you will enjoy this classic series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which I have not yet reviewed on this website but which has given me a lasting admiration for those who really tamed the wild west:

  • Little House in the Big Woods
  • Little House on the Prairie
  • On the Banks of Plum Creek

I don't often make links to adult books, but if you are an older reader and you are interested in the way the behaviour of the characters slips into near-anarchy as their hardships increase, you might be interested in this classic by William Golding:

  • Lord of the Flies

Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:

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