Pierre Berton has given us the National Dream and The Last Spike to celebrate the construction of our nation binding railway in the 1880s. With Li Jun and the Iron Road, Anne Tait shows us the project from the perspective of an unlikely heroine, ‘Little Tiger,’ a spunky Chinese teenager who disguises herself as a boy to get to Canada to reunite with her long-lost father.
We follow Li Jun from her village in China to servitude in Hong Kong, then to a job in a fireworks factory where she develops expertise with explosives. When she sees a poster advertising for Chinese workers to join the construction crew building the railroad through the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia, Li Jun inveigles a meeting with James, the son of the railway owner, saves him from death when attacked by a brutal anti-recruitment enforcer, delivers workers when the situation seems hopeless, then sails to Canada with them.
Anne Tait renders skillfully the multiple twists and turns of Li Jun’s story. Our heroine uncovers payroll padding, survives attempts on her life by the crooks and highly dangerous blasting assignments on the sheer rock faces. She even enjoys a tender romance with James. The ending, an emotional reconciliation with her father as he is dying and her decision about her future, is engagingly realistic, spurning the ‘lived happily ever after’ trope. In a sobering reminder of the human cost of the construction of the railroad, Tait’s book is dedicated ‘To the thousands of Chinese workers who died building our railway–three for every mile of track they laid.’
In mid-November at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, I had the pleasure of joining four hundred ESL students for a REEL Canada showing of ‘Iron Road,’ the film that Tait produced and that inspired her book. The students were highly enthusiastic; their appreciative comments in tentative English were a delight to hear. Anne Tait convinced Peter O’Toole (‘he owed me one’) and Sam Neill to take feature roles.
One of REEL Canada’s missions is to introduce Canadian students, including newcomers, to Canadian films. The combination of the novel Li Jun and the Iron Road with the film ‘Iron Road’ is a powerful teaching tool for teachers of English, History, Film Studies and English Second Language.
‘Iron Road,’ feature film, 99 minutes, PG, Director David Wu, with Peter O’Toole, Sam Neill, Sun Li and Luke Macfarlane.