Rock Island Line: Conversations Over Chicken and Dumplings by Michelle Dobbs
Links: Author’s website No video trailer found. After reading the book, you might enjoy this audio version of the Rock Island Line song featured in the story by Lead Belly. There are other versions available.
“Rock Island Line” is an American blues/folk song first recorded by John Lomax in 1934 as sung by inmates in an Arkansas State Prison, and later popularized by Lead Belly. Many versions have been recorded by other artists, most significantly the world-wide hit version in the mid-1950s by Lonnie Donegan. The song is ostensibly about the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad.
Book Summary: Lilly is growing up in 1920’s Illinois in a poor railroad town but a tightly-knit, successful black family. Her innocent childhood with her best friend Lois (also discriminated against, but for being American Indian) contains a touch of comedy as neither girl knows where babies come from and Lilly is determined to buy a baby brother. Lilly grows up and eventually does discover how babies are born and how they die.
Personal Reaction: Because the book encompasses most of Lilly’s lifetime, I cannot say I would recommend it to middle graders due to the adult topics that arise (nothing graphic), but I liked it as a personal choice. I loved the bonfires and the character of Lee. I was shocked at Papa’s confession and the tragedy of Pearl and Maggie.
Curriculum or discussion topics: Racism, personal responsibility, family values. Author has book club discussion questions posted on her website.
Connections to other books: Out Of The Dust and Witness by Hesse, Bud, Not Buddy by Curtis, A Long Way From Chicago by Peck; The Great Depression and World War II by Carlisle, Al Capone’s Chicago by Yancey, maybe a few of those decade chronicles-type books for 20’s and on… like The 1930s from the Great Depression to the Wizard of Oz by Feinstein
Items to display with book: Railroad set or model train, photos of Depression era Illinois, spelling book, big brown dusty oxford school shoes, Jazz or Blues records (on a phonograph if you can score one), bell jar full of pennies, baby doll or diapers
Food items connected to story: Chicken every which way (fried, roasted, sandwiches, soup, potpie, & dumplings); pot luck party foods (lima beans, casseroles, cakes, biscuits) lemonade, etc.