Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

Young Adult Fiction Canada

Li Jun and the Iron Road

by (author) Anne Tait

with Paulette Bourgeois

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Nov 2015
Canada, Prejudice & Racism, Historical
Recommended Age
12 to 15
Recommended Grade
7 to 10
Recommended Reading age
12 to 15
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Nov 2015
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Nov 2015
    List Price

Classroom Resources

Where to buy it


CCBC’s Best Books for Kids & Teens (Spring 2016) — Commended

From the award-winning movie comes a story of courage and forbidden love.

It’s 1882 in southern China. Li Jun, a feisty homeless girl disguised as a boy called Little Tiger, works in a fireworks factory and yearns to sail across the ocean to the mysterious Gold Mountain in faraway British Columbia to find her long-lost father and fulfill her promise to her dying mother.
She joins thousands of Chinese men blasting a path for the new railway through the “impassable” Rocky Mountains. There she faces danger, deceit, and prejudice at every turn. Then, defying all the rules, she falls in love with James, the son of the railway tycoon.
Should she reveal her true identity to him? Coming from such different worlds, could they make a life together?

About the authors

Anne Tait is a movie producer, a writer for stage, screen, and print, a broadcaster, and a casting director. She has cast feature films and major television shows including Anne of Green Gables, Road to Avonlea, and Goosebumps. She won the Female Eye Film Festival Career Achievement Award, two Anik awards, the Victoria College Distinguished Alumna honour, plus the Canadian Gemini and the Rome and Dominican Republic Festival awards for her film Iron Road, and was nominated for an Emmy. She lives in Toronto.

Anne Tait's profile page

Paulette Bourgeois est l'auteure des albums mettant en vedette Benjamin la tortue. Traduites dans 38 langues, les aventures de Benjamin se sont vendues à plus de 60 millions d'exemplaires à travers le monde! Benjamin et la Saint-Valentin a remporté la troisième position au palmarès Communication-Jeunesse des livres pour les jeunes.


When asked what she hopes children will learn from her books, Paulette Bourgeois explains: "It is most important to look for the wonder in ordinary things." Some of this wonder, and a curious anxiety, spill over into her character Franklin. The world's best-loved turtle overcomes the challenges of the everyday life of a five-year-old in a way that resonates with children. Since 1986, Franklin and Paulette have championed a fear of the dark, boastful fibs, thunderstorms, new friends, museum dinosaurs,...
When Paulette finished writing her first book, Franklin in the Dark, she knew that she would always write stories for children. With each new book, she imagines a child turning the last page and giving a satisfied sigh. Paulette explains: "I want readers to feel connected to my storybook world - to feel, to smell, to touch and to explore the landscapes, both internal and external, that I have created. As I write, I draw on my own experiences and find it easy to remember emotions and situations."
Although Paulette is best-known for the Franklin books, she is also the writer of fiction and non-fiction for young readers. In her non-fiction writing, she explores another realm of wonders with her young readers. She shares "amazing" information on many topics: from apples to potatoes; from fire fighters to Garbage Collectors; from the moon to the sun! What's next, the universe! The Sun: Starting with Space was shortlisted for a Science in Society Book Award (1995), given by the Canadian Science Writer's Association, and won the honor of Parents' Choice Approval, given by the US Parents' Choice Foundation (1997).
Currently, Paulette is endeavoring to write longer books for children, and trying to follow the advice she gives to children: "Read, read, read and write, write, write."

Paulette Bourgeois' profile page


  • Commended, CCBC's Best Books for Kids and Teens (Spring 2016)

Excerpt: Li Jun and the Iron Road (by (author) Anne Tait; with Paulette Bourgeois)

Chapter One

The rooster in the Ho household’s courtyard crowed loudly to greet the dawn and the caged birds in the kitchen answered with sweet, high melodies. Li Jun stretched and yawned, warmed by the first rays of sun streaming through the tiny window in her servant’s quarters. Such a glorious day, she thought. Then she remembered — in moments she’d be summoned by First Wife screeching like a cat in a sack about to be drowned. For the past three long years, Li Jun had wakened to the same opera. And there it was again: “Lazy girl! Come here! My chamber pot is full and the stink is making me green.” “Coming, Mistress. I will bring your breakfast,” she would always answer. Li Jun splashed water on her face, quickly twisted her waist-length hair into two braids that she coiled around her ears, pulled on her trousers and jacket. Darn! There was a stain on her sleeve. She spat on her finger and dabbed at the stain but it didn’t change — still dark and greasy. Muttering to herself, she ran from her room on the far side of the courtyard to the main house. Until she arrived in Hong Kong as a twelve-year-old country girl to work as a mui jai, a “little sister,” she’d never seen such wealth, never imagined room upon room filled with carved wooden furniture, floors polished to a sheen, thick carpets everywhere, and gas lamps glowing in the dining room at night. But that was three years ago and back then she also never imagined that she would be the one on her hands and knees polishing those floors and washing the fine china until the skin on her hands was raw. The worst of her jobs? Reaching under the Ho family beds every morning to remove their chamber pots and empty them onto the garden vegetables. She plugged her nose and chewed on a piece of mint from the garden to keep from gagging, then washed the pots until they gleamed. Cook was busy in the kitchen when Li Jun came to fetch First Wife’s breakfast. On the tray was a bowl of steaming congee, plump with fish and pickled vegetables, plus a pot of jasmine tea. Li Jun was tempted to dip her finger into the porridge for just a taste — it looked so appetizing and her stomach ached with hunger. But later she would eat her breakfast of cold rice and maybe, if Cook was in a good mood, he’d throw in a mouthful of wilted greens. First Wife squawked from her bedroom even more loudly. Cook winced and motioned Li Jun to head upstairs. “How do you stand it, day after day?” she asked him. He hesitated. “She wasn’t always this bad. In fact, she was happy until she found she couldn’t have children. Mr. Ho wanted a son, so he found Second Wife. Now First Wife is miserable with everyone.” Second wife was big in the belly soon after coming to the house and gave birth to a son. First Wife wanted to send her away and raise the boy as her own but Mr. Ho had his own reasons for keeping Second Wife around. She was not much older than Li Jun, dainty and very pretty, and she warmed his bed most nights. Li Jun had scant sympathy for the tyrant upstairs. Still, she thought it was sad that First Wife had no children and her husband had brought a woman half her age with twice her beauty into her house. She knew that her father, far away in Gold Mountain, was faithful to her mother. They had been strangers on their wedding night, as in all arranged marriages, but love had blossomed and Li Jun remembered how tender they were with one another. In all her time as a servant girl, not a day passed that Li Jun didn’t long to be back with her family in her cottage by the river in Ping Wei. It had been a simple life full of joy and abundance. Her father, Li Man, taught at the village school; her mother, Shuqin, farmed the fields and tended to the house and garden. Li Jun was a carefree child then, but now it all seemed like a dream, a lifetime ago. Terrible things happened all over Guangdong. Li Man led the local farmers in their revolt against the brutal and greedy Manchu warlords, but lost the battle and his teaching job. Then, in revenge, their village was burned to the ground. He moved his family downriver, along with the other villagers, but their crops failed and they faced starvation. Li Man decided the only way to avoid disaster was to go off to “Gold Mountain” in America. There he would search for gold — they said it was lying in the ditches. There he would make his fortune and keep his family alive. He would send money every month, and when he was rich he would come back to them. At first his letters arrived full of love and longing, with enough money to support the two of them. Then, mysteriously, the letters stopped and there was nothing they could … Enough! Li Jun chided herself. Stop daydreaming and get to work. She was at First Wife’s door now. She knocked gently on it and carefully balanced the tray as she entered. But a gust of wind slammed the door shut behind her with a resounding THUD. First Wife, startled by the noise, jumped up in her bed, pulled back her quilt, and lifted a thick, dimpled leg over the side, balancing precariously on one elbow and groaning with the effort of sitting up. “Wait! I’ll help you,” cried Li Jun, setting the tray down on the ornate dresser. But no — she was too late. First Wife kicked over her chamber pot and the fetid contents pooled in a disgusting mess by the bed. “You stupid girl! This is your fault for slamming that door. And what’s this? There’s a spot on your sleeve. Such a dirty mui jai! Your mother would be ashamed.” You know nothing of my family! Li Jun wanted to shout. How dare you degrade me? My father was a teacher, a brave man with a fire in his soul to do what was right! My mother was proud of me. Didn’t I give up everything — the chance for school, for a husband — to come here to work for you, you fat cow? But instead she clamped her lips together, took a deep breath, and bowed to her mistress. More than anything, Li Jun knew she must be obedient. She’d heard what happened to uppity servants. Long ago when a cook’s helper spoke back to First Wife, his back was caned to a bloody pulp. As she wiped up the spill and scrubbed the floor, she had only one thought: the old cow was right when she said her chamber pot made her feel green. Her shit did stink more than most. More than ever, Li Jun wished she was at home. She would never forget the day her world changed forever. It was her twelfth birthday and her mother had scrounged enough to buy the rarest of treats — a bean cake. Li Jun took a bite and swooned with the pleasure at the first taste of the sweet paste. There had been no sweets for a long time. Not since a year before, at Chinese New Year, when they received a letter from her father, along with most of his wages from the past months. He wrote that the gold rush in America was over, so he was travelling north to British Columbia, the new Gold Mountain, to find work. There was still gold in those rivers and a railroad was being built right across Canada from the Pacific to the Atlantic coasts. It was a long letter, full of excitement. Canada was a new Dominion, no longer under direct rule of Britain. Many people in British Columbia wanted to join the United States but the first prime minister of Canada promised them an iron road, a railroad that would link the vast nation from sea to sea. It was a big country, Li Man wrote, even bigger than the ocean he had crossed from China to the new world! The railway lines in the east were nearly finished but building the western track through the forests and mountains of British Columbia was so dangerous that it was way behind schedule. Li Man wrote that a powerful contractor was hiring Chinese workers to clear the land, blast tunnels through rock, and lay the track in the Rocky Mountains. He was excited by his prospects and promised his wife and daughter that once he was settled up in Canada, he would send lots of money back to them. That was his last letter. Li Jun and her mother read it over every day, as they waited for more news and the promised money. But they never came. Li Jun offered a bite of her bean cake to Shuqin, who shook her head no and smiled as her daughter devoured the birthday gift. But Li Jun was worried. Her mother’s eyes were dark as stone, and underneath purple half moons had settled into deep hollows. She took her hand. “Have you had bad news from Father?” Shuqin ignored the question. “Is the cake good?” she asked. Li Jun was not a child; she knew her mother was hiding something dreadful. “He’s dead, isn’t he?” Her mother sighed and looked away as if gathering her strength to answer. “Li Jun, I don’t know. He hasn’t sent money in more than a year. He doesn’t write. There must be some explanation. Your father is a good man. He’s brave too. He would never abandon us. But look at you — you’re little more than skin stretched over bones. We’re starving. The roof is broken, and when the rains come it will fall in and we have no money to fix it.” Li Jun had an idea. “I’ll quit school and sell our vegetables in the market.” “Sweet girl, we don’t have enough vegetables to feed ourselves, never mind sell to others. Besides, it’s too dangerous here now. Every day I hear of another girl kidnapped and sold as a slave … or worse.” Li Jun pretended she didn’t know what worse meant, but she did. Everyone in the village talked. Girls were stolen, then beaten and forced into brothels to please men with their bodies. They were never seen again. Li Jun felt her stomach churn as her mother continued. “The head of our clan has made me an offer we cannot refuse. You will become a mui jai in Hong Kong for Mr. Ho. He is a rich man who needs help with his son and his two wives.” “A little sister?” said Li Jun. She understood exactly what that meant. She would be loaned to the Ho family as a servant. Her mother would get money, enough to survive, in exchange for her servitude. She forced back her tears and stifled the urge to scream: “NO!” She had no choice but to accept her mother’s decision. It was her duty. “It won’t be for long, Li Jun,” said her mother gently. “Once your father returns, he will pay back the debt to Mr. Ho, we will be a family again, and we will find you a good husband.” The next day, as she embraced her mother and said goodbye, Li Jun made herself a promise. She would not be a servant forever. She would find another way to support the two of them. She was like her father — brave. And there was a fire burning in her soul, too. WHOMP! A fan hit her on the head. She put up both hands to protect herself from First Wife’s anger. “Pay attention, stupid girl! Take away my tray and lay out my clothes. I am meeting with my mah-jong group this afternoon and I plan to look particularly fetching as I take all the winnings.” Li Jun snapped back to the present. To make First Wife look “fetching” would take much more than the fanciest silk dress. It would take a miracle.

Editorial Reviews

History comes to life in this gripping page-turner as the spirited heroine searches for her father in Gold Mountain.

Arlene Chan, Chinese Historian and Author

Ending with an exciting climax of discovery and reconciliation, Li Jun and the Iron Road vividly describes a darker time in Canadian history while one of our greatest technological achievements of nationhood was being created.

Canadian Teacher Magazine

The novel’s strength lies in its depiction of the miserable working conditions endured by the Chinese workers who built Canada's railways in the 1880s. As well, through the eyes of a young woman, readers see the discrimination against Chinese people in Canada and the circumscribed roles for women at that time … [a] worthy addition to schools and public libraries.

Canadian Materials

Action and romance—what more do you want? Iron Road rivals The Pianist in significance...both stories give a face to those nameless and voiceless who perished.

Toronto Star

This is the best kind of historical fiction, in which the story wells up through the actions of powerful characters, and stunning landscapes both in China and in Canada grip readers with terrifying possibilities that keep them glued to the page.

Resource Links

Li Jun epitomizes the feminist dream of equality. An important novel, essential reading for anyone interested in the early history of Canada.

The Honourable Dr. Vivienne Poy, Canada's first Chinese-Canadian senator

Other titles by