William Vollman's riveting account of today's train-hoppers harks back to the legacy of the 1930s, when a quarter million young men and women left their homes and rode the rails.
In my award-winning book, "Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move During the Great Depression," I draw on 3,000 letters from former boxcar boys and girls who hopped freight trains looking for work or adventure.
"With more than 500 interviews and stunning archival photographs by Walker Evans, Gordon Parks and Dorothea Lange, Uys so thoroughly recreates the wretched conditions the boxcar boys and girls endured that the reader can all but hear the cadence of the trains on the tracks and the lonesome wail at every whistle stop," said a Boston Globe reviewer.
Many letters I got are handwritten, as from old friends sharing honest-to-God stories. Time and again, I felt a connection to a lonely boy or girl standing beside the tracks in those hard times. It left me with a deep sense of the inner strength and faith of ordinary Americans and their belief in this land.
Studs Terkel has said that the story of the boxcar boys and girls is "one of the vital, terribly neglected sagas of the Thirties. With today's homeless kids, it is a contemporary story of overwhelming importance."
The lessons learned by this forgotten generation of America's children who rode the rails in search of a better life are a powerful reminder of what might turn up around the next curve. They are an inspiration to all who share a nostalgia for the road and the freedoms sought there.
In the words of three of those legendary train-hoppers:
"We thought it was the magic carpet... the click of the rails...romance."
"The end of the rainbow was always somewhere else and it kept us moving."
"Most of all I remember the loneliness. More than once I cried. I felt so sad, so utterly alone."
You can a selection of the letters on my website www.erroluys.com
Errol Lincoln Uys, author of Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move During the Great Depression (Routledge 2003)