Analytical Book Review of Riding the Rails essay

There was a great depression due to stock market crash in 1929. [Smith, 2002]. United States was the worst affected country. There was a sudden decline in production and sales of goods were affected due to low purchasing power of the people and depression resulted to an unprecedented unemployment in U. S. A. Many business and banks had been compelled to shut down their shutters due to this colossal economic crisis. Many farmers lost their savings and homes during great depression as they encountered bankruptcy.

It was during the great depression, more than 251,000 young generations had left their residence and snuck aboard trains mainly in search of employment, adventure or just for food. It is pity to note that majority of these young generations were small lads who are around thirteen years age. After the sixty years of the Great Depression, the couple documentary film makers Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys identified the sufferers for their movie “Riding the Rails”. Further these couple collected huge volume of source materials for scripting down which were later used for this book by Errol Lincoln Uys who was the father of Michael Uys.

The elder Uys had served as editor of South Africa edition Readers Digest for long time and also had authored a historical novel namely “Brazil”. Uys made an extensive research on the collection and came to a conclusion that reasons for the young people to leave their home was mainly due to the dire conditions that existed in their communities. Public financial exigency combined with private economic distress resulted in closure of schools or forced to reduce the classroom hours to minimize overheads that led 41% of high-school –age adolescents to become absentees.

Considering themselves as a financial burden to their families as they were not able to find a suitable employment, these young boys hit the rails to find jobs and to get away from the shame of poverty. Contemporary outlooks of these young nomads differed: some of them viewed that transient youths experiencing a benign coming-of-age experience, and others developed anxieties over the emergence of an American mass which was analogues to the groups of young studious who were then terrorizing in the rural areas of Italy and Germany. During this period, young lads underwent a variety of experiences.

For a while, they were given food and shelter by sympathetic townsfolk and some were thrashed and imprisoned by “bulls” whom were known as railroad detectives and by local police. The author expressed a dread of hunger and the stirring of sense of freedom and recollections of the sufferers of the great depression which were just a mixture of revulsion and nostalgia. During this period, the journey was much more difficult to African Americans and girls as they were encountered brutality at the hands of other fellow sufferers and police officials.

However, according to author, those lads who were fortunate enough to join in National Youth Administration [NYA] programs and in Civil Conservation Corps [CCC] had escaped from this perils and pains. The book “Riding Rail” is arranged into four sections. In the first section “Catching Out”, sufferers exposed the reason for leaving their home. Even parents advised their wards to go out and to look after themselves as they were unable to feed them anymore. Girls never took it so lightly the decision to hit the road as they knew that they were getting into a world engulfed with the danger.

For African Americans, the journey was doubly hazardous as they had to move into towns where color of their skin would render them as outsiders. They may be having assorted reasons for leaving their home but each witnessed a significant moment when they had to ‘catch out’ and skip their first freight. From that moment onwards, there was no reversing. [Uys, 2003, p. 45]. In the second section “Hard Travelin” sufferers narrated the ordeals during train journey and violence unleashed on them by railroad security guards namely “bull”.

According to statistics, about 5692 trespassers were died and injured in 1932 during their journey out of which about 1510 were under 21 ages. Some young travelers found companionship in the roving army but majority road kids made it alone as they were afraid of the senior strangers. Most of the adventurers witnessed hair-raising instants when they astonished whether they would ever make it to the next step. Black road kids encountered most brutal and blatant racism. Some of the Black road kids were successful in fostering shared privations with white kids thereby making better understanding between them.

Ultimately, a road kid would have a run-in with the bulls. For majority of the rail road kids, the bulls made riding the rails with a mixture of adventure associated with terror. The third section was named as “Hitting the Stem” which narrated about sufferings encountered by sufferers while searching job, food in unknown places or towns and sleeping in hobo “jungles’. Majority of shopkeepers and homeowners assisted the unlucky kids. Later, these humanitarian acts were well remembered by all who had been half-starved and bitterly disheartened when they sought help from a stranger.

Some young kids were awarded punishment to work on chain gangs or to do help on the “pea-farms” where corrupt law government employees provided cost-free workers to local farmers and growers. Penniless youths had moved from one shelter to another, by paying day rental for a bed at the YMCA if they had enough money and stayed in the Salvation Army or other missions whey they were linked. Some kids had taken asylum on “Skid row,” or in the newer “Homerville’s” that propagated in American towns.

Though the government transient shelters offered wider relief, but could not provide shelter to the human flood engulfing over the land. [Uys, 2003, p. 145]. The concluding section was titled as “The Way Out” which narrated how the young sufferers left the rail-riding phase by joining the “Civilian Conservation Corps”. Uys arranged the book in such style that it contained the viewpoints of both white and black sufferers, viewpoints of both men and women and comments of poor sufferers and viewpoints of some who rode the rails as a lark.

Basing on the race, gender and social rank, sufferers were enthralled by varied aspects of the journey. One woman sufferer narrated that she did enjoy some extra liberties while costumed as a boy. A wealthier sufferer told that great depression has awakened his class consciousness, stimulating a life-long involvement in human rights resistance movement. Many white sufferers recounted epiphanies pertaining resemblance between races. The devastating feeling of the sufferer’s reminiscence is a bittersweet mix of freedom and destitution.

One of the sufferer namely “ Don Snyder “ who rode the rail for more than three years while he was just fifteen commented that it was a dreadful way to live. The journey was dangerous and rough and there was also presence of a supernatural quality. For all the difficulties, one would feel a faint longing to hit the journey once again. [Uys, 2003, p. 245]. One of the young sufferers informed that sufferings underwent by him during the depression may be unbelievable one and something that could not ever happen in America.

As this century itself crosses and the years of the boxcar girls and boys draw to an end, these reminiscences of a backdrop of wreck stand as a reminder to those who might overlook the lessons of history. [Uys, 2003, p. 10]. No doubt, “Riding the Rails” is a useful study of the Depression period. Moreover, this book is a page turner for anyone who wishes to know what had happened during “the Great Depression” in America in 1930’s. This book even entices a modern teenager into going through a history book.

In the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “the young nomads of the Great Depression struggled to endure in a nation “dying by inches”. Adventurous, brave, resourceful, these young nomads encountered terror and joy, grandeur and loneliness during their journeys. A misplaced generation trying to seek itself, they would be overwhelmingly swayed by what they witnessed and experienced on the road. Uys, 2003, p. 12].


Uys, E. L. (2003). Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move during the Great Depression. New York: Routledge.