The wanderer who rides the rails and sleeps under the stars is one of the most romantic figures in American culture; here Wormser ( The Iron Horse: How the Railroads Changed America ) offers an intriguing look at the facts behind the legends. The era of the hobo, he explains, coincided with the growth of industrialization and the building of the railroads, and it ended with the advent of WW II. In those 60 years, millions of Americans traveled the country in a seasonal cycle of searching for work. While the text is uneven and somewhat repetitious, the research is thorough and Wormser covers fascinating ground. Of particular interest are discussions of the great art of train riding, the strict class system and variegated subculture of hobo society, gay relationships within the hobo community, and the hard work generally undertaken by hoboes (despite popular views of them as indolent bums). Most provocative is the exploration of relations between hoboes and civil rights and labor organizers; unionization and workers' rights, claims the author, owe a debt to hobo ingenuity. Historical photographs are included. Ages 10-up. (May)
Gr 7 Up-A highly readable and informative book that sheds light on a subject and social subclass that most of today's young people know little or nothing about: the hoboes, tramps, and bums of the past. Wormser explains that American hoboes were compulsively itinerant laborers, with roots extending back to the frontier migrants and Old World wanderers; they took part in America's industrial revolution by building railroads, lumbering, harvesting grain, etc. It was these men- and a number of women, especially during the Great Depression-who created a ``world [that] had its own rules, literature, songs, customs, and language.'' The chapter about the ``road kids'' is especially moving, for although these young people could be seemingly independent and resourceful, they could also be very vulnerable and subject to sexual and other exploitation. Wormser makes extensive use of period illustrations and photographs; he quotes generously from the writings and reminiscences of the vagabonds, including the lyrics of folksongs, ballads, and poetry. He concludes his social history with a look at Jack Kerouac on the road in the '50s and goes on to note that any connection between today's homeless and the hoboes of the past is tenuous at best, for there are many more differences than similarities. Hoboes would complement well Chester Aaron's fictional Lackawanna (Lippincott, 1986; o.p.).-David A. Lindsey, Lakewood Junior/Senior High School, WA
"The hobo wanders and works. The tramp wanders but does not work, and the bum neither wanders nor works." Quotes by hoboes about their world--its rules, literature, songs, customs, and language--and many stirring black-and-white documentary photographs enliven this account of those who rode the trains in search of a job from the end of the Civil War to the start of World War II. Wormser evokes the adventure of the hobo journey, the romance of the rugged individual, the pride and the exhilaration of "flipping freights" (hoboes rode on, in, and under every section of the train; some photos even show them riding on the rods underneath the train). At the same time, he's frank about the brutal reality of living on the edge in hard times--the hunger, the viciousness, the "jungle" warfare. This is also an essential part of labor history, and there's a fascinating chapter on the Wobblies, who tried to organize the wandering workers and improve conditions. From the beginning, readers will be struck by the differences and similarities between those hoboes and today's homeless people and migrant workers; but, unfortunately, Wormser doesn't connect past and present except in a brief epilogue. He includes bibliographic references for each chapter; and the final hobo dictionary captures the community of the bindle stiff in all its wildness and melancholy.