Geraldine McCaughrean's Stop the Train! is set in the 19th century, in the state of Oklahoma which has just been opened up to settlers. Young Cissy and her parents are joined by a disparate group of others who arrive in Florence, an as yet unestablished town. Their lives are a continual struggle to make the plots of earth and scrub where they have staked their claims into paying concerns. The fortunes of the settlers take a real downturn when they incur the wrath of the powerful railroad baron Clifford T Rimm by their refusal to sell their claims to him for his projected "Company Town". Thwarted by their communal refusal he tells his train drivers not to stop in Florence to take on water, thereby preventing the settlers from bringing in or shipping out goods.
Florence appears to be doomed before its barely established itself, but the brave and resourceful Florentines do not intend to give up without a fight, and the battle begins to stop the train, come hell or high water ! The various methods employed waver between the frankly ingenious to the totally outrageous and life-threatening (on two occasions). It seems that all is finally lost when the Florentines discover they have a traitor in their midst, and for a while Rimm's son, Nathaniel, is suspected... I won't say any more because I don't want to spoil the story, but this is a gripping and heart-warming tale (and I don't mean that in a sentimental manner - the courage shown by the majority of the settlers is inspiring). It's also based on a real life story.
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I've had a Geraldine McCaughrean week as I also started (but alas did not finish) reading Gold Dust and Not the End of the World (neither book seemed to hold my interest, sadly). However, I then read The Kite Rider, which I found as gripping as Stop the Train!. This is another historical tale, this time set in 13th century China, which tells the story of 12 year old Haoyou, who is offered the chance to escape his family's poverty and the pain of his father's recent death by becoming a kite rider with the Jade Circus. Haoyou is strapped to a specially built scarlet and gold kite, which he has designed himself, and sent high into the sky to soar amongst the clouds for the entertainment of awestruck circus crowds. He travels across the earning money, freedom, and unexpected fame as he skillfully performs for local villagers who believe he can bring back messages from lost loved ones whose spirits are said to haunt the upper air. Miao, the circus master, plans for Haoyou to perform before the Mongol conqueror, Kublai Khan. But the duties that bind Haoyou to the ground, particularly his duties to his widowed mother, and his grasping uncle who is now head of the Gou family, imperil his future as a kite rider.
This novel has quite a few twists and turns, and whilst the villains didn't quite get what they deserved, it does have a fairly happy ending.