Riding the Rails, A Multimedia Review

882572._UY200_I picked up this book for a buck at a second hand bookstore. It was stamped “discarded,” by the Brown County Library in Nashville, Ind. I don’t know what the folks in Brown County are thinking about because this is a really good book.

Riding the Rails is the story of American teenagers during the Depression, some 250,000 of them. With no prospect of work, no perceived reason to stay in school and a desperately shrinking home environment, they hit the road. Or, to be more precise, the railroad. They jumped on, stowed away in and rode atop freight trains, travelling the country looking for fruit to pick, lumber to chop and grain to harvest. And maybe for a little adventure along the way.

This is first-hand history. WGBH/PBS produced a documentary called “Riding the Rails” in 1998 as part of the “American Experience” series. In researching that film, the producers solicited letters from survivors of the experience. They heard from about 3,000 of them. It was the content of those letters that was used to produce both the Peabody Award winning film and the book. So, oddly, this is a book that was based on a TV show.  It was published by TV Books, a publisher whose goal was to do just that. They’ve since folded.

Those who survived a hobo adolescence in the 30’s remember it as a moving, life-changing experience. But at the time not a happy one. Hopping on and off trains is dangerous. Some lost their lives and some lost their limbs. Boxcar boys and girls were hungry, tired, broke and scared. Mostly they were hungry. As one of them noted: “One of the sad things about kids on the road was that they didn’t know how to play. Life was earnest, life was hard.”

Box car

(Tim Emerich)

Here are a few of the people I was introduced to in Riding the Rails.

  • Arvel Pearson lived behind a railroad station in an Ozark village. By the age of nine he was working in a strip mine. When the Depression hit, the mines closed. Arvel was on the road at age 15 and stayed there from 1930 to 1942 picking up a few days work here and there as a migrant farm worker in the summer and a coal miner in the winter. In 1939 the National Hobo Convention named him “King of the Hoboes.”
  • Clarence Lee was one of six children in a Baton Rouge, La., family that was forced through hard times to go into sharecropping. Clarence was sent out by his father who told him he could no longer support him. As a black teenager he had to confront racism as well as hunger, cold and danger. By working on a dairy farm for 10 cents an hour he was eventually able to buy his parents out of sharecropping. The film shows Clarence in his eighties still working as a groundskeeper at a school in California.
  • Unlike most of the kids who rode the rails, John Fawcett left a comfortable home in West Virginia looking for adventure. “I didn’t see suffering until I ran away from home. It would be a cold and unfeeling person who wouldn’t be stunned and angered at the squalor of the streets and migrant camps.” He devoted much of the rest of his life to fighting for human rights. A member of the ACLU, he was active in the antiwar, women’s rights and gay rights movements.

The movie includes interviews with many of these survivors. It also has 1930’s newsreel footage with some of the adolescent transients. The black and white images of the railroads, the Chicago Worlds Fair and a “hobo jungle” are accompanied by a score of blues and folk music of the era, including Woody Guthrie and Brownie McGhee. There’s also some original songs by “Guitar Whitey” who himself was riding the rails in the 30’s.

The book has a lot more detail than you can get into a one hour+ documentary. My only issue with the book is that it is imperfectly edited, with a couple instances of a missing word or broken off sentence. But it is so interesting. Reading it made me wonder why when history is taught in our schools they don’t teach high school kids the history of people their age. Surely it would be more compelling and more meaningful for them.

Riding the Rails is now more than 15 years old. You’re not going to find it on the front tables at the Barnes & Noble. The publisher is out of business but there are still quite a few copies available on Amazon both new and used. Or maybe your librarians had a little more appreciation for this story than the ones in Brown County, Indiana. The documentary is available on YouTube and through PBS.

This entry was posted in Book reviews, History, History of Teenagers, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Riding the Rails, A Multimedia Review

  1. That’s amazing. I have to check out the documentary. I seem to recall this but I didn’t see it. It fascinates me that these kids were so brave to do this all by themselves. Wow. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Phoenicia says:

    These stories are rather upsetting. Children working from a young age, alone, vulnerable and cold. It does not bear thinking about.

    I enjoy reading about the past but struggle to swallow how much people suffered due to poverty or ill treatment by those in power.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. mistermidway says:

    hi ken; its been a while. thanks for stopping by my site. you know this happened again during the recent economic downturn. It wasn’t the railroads. But people were looking for jobs and housing and many of them turned to work in the amusement industry traveling the country working rides, games, or selling food and living in bunk houses. I bet there would be a great book in this. I have a friend who has a concessions manager that used to be the president of a banking company. thanks for sharing. i love wgbh because of their role in describing television shows for better enjoyment by the blind. take care, max


  4. heraldmarty says:

    Sounds fascinating and I agree worth looking into. So much more interesting that walking tours through the dregs of New Jersey!


  5. How fascinating, Ken. I had no idea there was such a large number of American youth who took to riding the rails to find a new future for themselves during the Great Depression. My husband would LOVE that book.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Erica says:

    Ken, I’ve never heard of this documentary.The great depression must have been an extremely difficult time in which to be a teenager or young adult. It is difficult going out on your own when there are no opportunities and I’m amazed these kids found the strength to survive.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Due to teaching To Kill a Mockingbird and having written a few papers on some of Steinbeck’s works, I’ve researched the era of the Great Depression more so than most other eras. The stories are truly heartbreaking. I know I would enjoy this book as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Have never heard of this documentary. Considering that the world is going through a difficult time at the moment you can make interesting comparisons. Maroccan street kids illegally in Europe are becoming a huge problem. But who can blame them for coming here. Back home they don’t get any schooling and there is no future for them. So, horrible as it is, being a criminal in Europe is an attractive option.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ken Dowell says:

      One of the differences here is just the space. The idea of hitching onto a train headed west was in keeping with the image of the American frontiersman even if the reality was more like the Moroccan street kids of today.


  9. My grandfather would be interested in this. He’s a big history buff. I’m going to send this to him.


  10. Thanks for including the video, Ken. This is an astounding story and I’m glad you found the book. I love those finds. You are spot on about teaching kid-history to kids. That’s a great idea and wonderful way to teach. I’m reading “Up From Slavery” by Booker T Washington, which I think every 6th grader should read–help them value our free education system. I’m also reading, “The Boys in the Boat” and the stories about the Depression are quite moving. I liked watching the movie.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Beth Niebuhr says:

    I’d heard about this but never knew about the documentary. Thanks for telling us about it. I’d like to see it.


  12. Reblogged this on By the Mighty Mumford and commented:


  13. Andy says:

    I watched all five parts of the documentary. Very sobering – I wouldn’t wish that sort of “adventure” on anyone. (Let’s hear it for Weatherford, Texas, which had a policy of driving transients several miles out of town and dumping them on the highway – it occurred to me that this could be a death sentence on a hot summer day.)

    The documentary indirectly raises several ‘big picture’ questions: What caused the Great Depression? Why did it impact some people but not others? What could have been done to prevent it? Could it happen again? Regarding that last question, the Brown County Library’s disposal of Riding the Rails makes me think of George Santayana’s famous quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”


  14. I’ve never heard of this before. It seems like an interesting yet sad story.


  15. MaryHill says:

    Very interesting time period. I know the Great Depression really impacted families, but I had no idea of the scope. Thanks for sharing on Literacy Musing Mondays.


  16. Thanks for sharing about this book. I wish you had known about it while it was still in print. Maybe a review like this would have helped generate more interest! Thanks for sharing at the Literacy Musing Mondays Linkup #LMMLinkup. Join us again this week: http://www.foreverjoyful.net/?p=830

    Liked by 1 person

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