Many American authors have used railroads symbolically in their novels, essays, or short stories. Some titles include The Octopus by Frank Norris, Song of the Lark by Willa Cather, and Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Teachers can provide students with excerpts from novels or other writings that use trains in this and other ways. Have students determine the significance of the train to the plot if appropriate, and the overall meaning of the work. Why did the author use the railroad as opposed to other forms of transportation? What does the use of a train convey to the reader?
Students can then search the collection on the region where the story takes place or on names of railroads, such as Thoreau's Fitchburg Railroad. If maps of the region or railroad do not exist in the collection, students can search for others of the same time period or place. What additional information do the maps provide about the railroad system at that time? How do they enhance your understanding of the novel or story? Do they prove or disprove the historical accuracy or symbolic meaning of the writing?