An interesting historical setting is marred by a morally ambiguous protagonist.
When his father dies in the Civil War, 13-year-old Malachy, now head of his household, heads to California to help build the transcontinental railroad. The work is back-breakingly hard, unglamorous and dangerous, but Malachy perseveres. Occasionally he finds himself working alongside Chinese immigrant laborers, who usually keep themselves separate, sleeping and eating alone. One in particular is a boy he names Ducks. Ducks saves Malachy's life more than once, but Malachy resents Ducks and rebuffs his friendly gestures. When the Chinese go on strike for equal wages, Malachy steals a bag of gold from the railroad. Ducks takes the blame and is forced to work without pay for a year. When, at the end, he forgives Malachy at the drop of a hat, it strikes a disappointing and unrealistic note. It's hard to feel sympathy for Malachy, who gambles and steals and, though he feels remorse, never does anything to make amends. While years pass in the novel, and readers are told Malachy grows and matures, they never really see this growth or truly believe it. Wilson's vigorous, lively prose, her fascinating setting and her meticulous attention to historical detail—including the Chinese workers' customs and a blind horse named Thomas—can't overcome the deficiencies in her story.
In the end, they ride off into the sunset—too bad it's not credible. (author's note) (Historical fiction. 10-14)