The Boxcar Boys and Girls
What kid hasn’t fantasized about running away from home and hitting the road? If your Dad was a kid in the 1930s, chances are that’s what he would have done looking for work and adventure.
Between 1929 and 1941, an estimated 4,000,000 Americans desperate for food and lodging roamed the land. Of this number, 250,000 were teenagers who rode the rails and grew up fast in speeding boxcars, living in hobo jungles, begging on the streets and running from the police and club-wielding railroad guards.
The restless youth of 3,000 boxcar boys and girls, many who went from “middle-class gentility to scrabble-ass poor” overnight, is recaptured in Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move During the Great Depression by Errol Lincoln Uys. With skill and sensitivity, Uys weaves together these rich reminiscences in the spirit of Studs Terkel. His book dispels the myths of a hobo existence and reveals the story of a daring generation of American teenagers who survived some of the hardest times in our nation’s history.
Riding the Rails grew out of the award-winning documentary of the same name made by Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell, who solicited 3,000 letters from former freight trainhoppers when they made the film. The letters as well as 500 follow-up questionnaires and 40 hours of filmed interview are the basis of the book.
The result is a memorable and moving story in which we see the decade of the Great Depression entirely through the eyes of young men and women growing up on a landscape of ruin. We ride the rails with them, setting out from homes shattered by unemployment and poverty and hitting the road. We learn of their struggle to survive on the streets of America and know their bitter disappointments, their sense of loss of childhood, their frustrations at the lack of opportunity. “When I think of all this traveling across the land, searching for the things we had lost, there is a place inside my chest that still hurts,” recalls one rider.
When they left the rails and got a hold on their lives, they never let go. Many tell of keeping the jobs they found for 30 or 40 years. And the girls they met, too: many write joyously of their enduring devotion to the sweethearts they married when they settled down. Their stories told in their own words resonate with the pluck and courage they showed in going to seek a better life. – They are the forgotten heroes of our century.