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Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move During the Great Depression 0th Edition

4.6 out of 5 stars 33 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0415945752
ISBN-10: 0415945755
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

"Go fend for yourself," Clarence Lee's father said. "I can't afford to have you around any longer." Like hundreds of thousands of other young people across the country during the Great Depression, the 16-year-old left home, hopped a freight train, and started riding the rails. An estimated 250,000 men and women--many of them in their teens--turned to the trains as fast and free transportation. Some left out of desperation and went looking for work, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles on the rumor of a job waiting farther down the line. Others left out of boredom; still others with a romantic idea of life on the road. Many realized, too late, that they were leaving little for nothing. Henry Ford, for one, thought the boxcar teens had it made: "Why it's the best education in the world for those boys, that traveling around! They get more experience in a few weeks than they would in years at school." As one contemporary observer noted, however, after about six months on the road, "the boys and girls lost their fresh outlook and eagerness. Trips across the continent were no longer educational, but were quests for bread."

Errol Lincoln Uys (pronounced "Ace") has collected thousands of letters written by boxcar boys and girls about their experiences, and peppers his chapters on the various aspects of hobo life with lengthy quotations, allowing the riders to speak for themselves. They talk about the danger--"You had to be careful not to stumble and fall under the wheels when you climbed on the cars"--and the desperation--"We were always hungry. Wasn't just 'cause dinner was hours late. It may have been a couple of days late. You were hungry, cold, miserable, with nobody to help you." They also talk about the remarkable kindness of strangers who fed and clothed the riders. Whether you're a "gaycat" (novice rider) or a "dingbat" (seasoned hobo), Riding the Rails is entertaining and inspiring, recapturing a time when the country was "dying by inches." --Sunny Delaney --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

This erratic account of the 250,000 "boxcar boys and girls" who traversed the country during the Great Depression amounts to an oral history of the seldom-studied lives of teenage hoboes. Using material gathered for a documentary film of the same title (made by Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell, the author's son and daughter-in-law), Uys draws on interviews, letters and other fragments from thousands of former rail-riders who answered an announcement in Modern Maturity magazine seeking reminiscences about their lives. A number of anecdotes offer insight into the desperation that led teens to leave impoverished homes. A sign at a Louisiana cafe, for example, stated succinctly: "Dishwasher WantedAonly college graduates need apply." Jobs were so scarce that one 18-year-old climbed eagerly on a locomotive in Ohio after hearing there might be work at a Los Angeles hotdog stand. The poignancy of such moments is diminished, however, because the various episodes are hitched together like random cars on a freight train and the text takes on the aimless movement of its young subjects as they drift in search of a hot meal. The most accomplished passages frame the vicissitudes of hobo life within the larger context of Depression-era politics. For many former hoboes, New Deal programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps offered the only alternative to hunger, jail and degrading hardship. Most remarkably, perhaps, this book shows how the occasional generosities encountered on the road instilled in these wanderers a lifelong ethos of humility and compassion toward others. (July)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 302 pages
  • Publisher: Routledge (February 7, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0415945755
  • ISBN-13: 978-0415945752
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,808,814 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Richard Harrold on May 22, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
My interest in this book was sparked by a bit of family history. A great-uncle of mine hoboed on trains before the 1920s. Born in 1900, he was attempting to hop a train in 1919 in Chicago, but lost his grip, fell from the car, and lost a leg beneath the train. All I know about this uncle was from a newspaper clipping from 1919 when a brave reporter interviewed my great-uncle just before he died from the infection in his leg.
The stories in "Riding the Rails" were tremendously moving to me. It gave me a perspecitive of the Depression and of Hoboes I hadn't had before. The personal stories were incredible, and the lucidity of expression by these people looking back on those difficult years was accurately relayed in the book. More than once I had to stop reading because of the tears in my eyes. I know this must sound melodramatic, but this book really moved me. But also, I must say this book reaffirmed my faith in human kindness and the perseverance of the human spirit.
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Format: Hardcover
This work was thoughly enjoyable. From the first moment I recieved it I reflected on its contents, pouring over each page as a child first learning of his past. "Riding the Rails" vividly portrays children thrust into adulthood upon their first adventure across our wide open country.
Not that they were out to conquer the world or to make their mark, but moreover to find a better way of life, or just simply to survive.
These are the stories of those that did survive. Let's not forget those who fell beneath the wheels of destiny, or those that died silently in cold empty boxcars amid the despair of the Great Depression. Their pain is silenced, but much of their legacy lives on.
Mr. Ulys, thank you for all your efforts in preparing this book and for bringing these subjects to the light of day.
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Format: Hardcover
Riding the Rails tells a story not often heard about life during the Great Depression. Although the story is fresh, it really puts into perspective what was going on in America at that time. By using teenage runaways to illustrate the struggles of our country, Ulys puts a very human face on the time period.
I thought the way the book was divided into sections with each section illustrating a different aspect of the runaways' lives, was extremely helpful. Each section began with an overview of the particular subject, using people as well as facts to tell the story. The section ended with the true life stories of the runaways told in their own words, which I found to be the most enjoyable part of the book. You could tell a lot of research went into finding reliable and interesting sources, because all of the personal accounts were compelling.
This book tied together so many aspects of the economic disaster that was the 1930s. By showing readers a face behind the poverty, they can understand how the country's economy has everything to do with the lives of its people. The stories told are so sad and hard to believe that it can serve as motivation to see that our country learns from its mistakes and never lets the economy become what it was at that time.
Overall, I found this to be an interesting read and well worth the time to gain insight into a compelling piece of history.
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Format: Hardcover
This book helps bring home the reality of life during the Depression. I think it would be a good one for high-school- or junior-high-age kids to read while studying this period of history. It doesn't tell the whole story by any means but it would be a good adjunct to a study of the period.

I disagree completely with the reviewer who said that the use of many, short quotes "makes for dull reading and dilutes the overall power of the experiences shared by these people." For one thing, there are longer first-person accounts at the end of each chapter. And to me the shorter quotes used in each chapter are moving in themselves. I also appreciated the greater scope of commentary they provided, more than just few stories in their entirety would have done.

I also disagree with the person who said there should have been more first-person accounts and less commentary. I think the commentary helps set the historical perspective, which not all readers might have.

That said, I can see how someone might want to read more first-hand accounts after reading this book. Some are mentioned in the bibliography.
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Format: Paperback
E.L. Uys should be commended for his efforts on this book. First, he tackles a topic that has not traditionally been looked at--teenagers who, during the Great Depression, decided for one reason or another, to leave their homes and families and illegally travel from city to city in trains. More than give a staight-through narrative as most authors do, he allows the rail riders to tell their own stories. Uys arranges the narratives (a chapter long, usually three in a row), then inserts his own chapter of commentary pointing out similarities and differences in the stories he's researched. What results is something that can be thought of as a book discussion group, where Uys is a participant. Uys simply points out many of the interesting aspects of the stories and sometimes other things he's researched while leaving the powerful first person narritive alone. Through this the reader can see not only the historical context and big picture (usually thanks to Uys), but also the smaller details that many third-person book length narratives might leave out--the long, maddening hours one would experience if he was unfortunate enough to hop on a car with a flat wheel (constant jackhammer-esque pounding for hours upon hours, preventing sleep or comfort of any kind); the looks on people's faces or tones of voices as they offer to help or chase away hobos; the story of the lady who called the police on a starving young begger as she fed some stray animals instead; the many anonymous people who paid for meals for starving teens; watching a fellow teenager die after he tried to jump onto a moving car, fell and had his legs severed by the train's wheels and the list can go on. This book was an interesing and moving one as Uys and his interviewees show both the freedoms and the dangers of riding the rails.Read more ›
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