When the Great Depression hits, Ed “Collie” Collier’s father has died, his brother leaves home and the family has fallen apart. Collie decides to bring Little Bill home, joining the ranks of hobos jumping trains in search of something better. Encountering racists, thieves, dust storms and railroad bulls and meeting such colorful characters as Scarecrow, Papa Bear and “Rainy” Knight, Collie finds a steadfast friend in a boy named Ike. Collie locates Little Bill at a CCC camp in Colorado, and the story turns out well, but not in the way Collie had imagined. Brisk prose, short paragraphs and plenty of dialogue will make readers feel they are riding the rails with Ike and Collie. In fact, the tale reads like an oral history. A good companion to Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust (1997) or Russell Freedman’s Children of the Great Depression (2006). (afterword) (Fiction. 10-14)
RIDING THE RAILS....Ed Collier (“Collie” for short) is on a mission. The year is 1934, and a series of tragedies has pushed Ed’s family to the brink. First his father died in a lumber accident; then his mother lost her job in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash; finally, Collie’s older brother, Little Bill, turned to drink and violence before leaving home and devastating their mother. “The family’s breaking like a shattered plate,” his mother despairs. Determined to mend the broken pieces, Collie, like so many other young men and boys during the Depression, hits the rails to try to find his older brother and bring him back home to Wisconsin. At first, Collie jumps freight trains under the tutelage of a veteran train jumper known as Scarecrow. Although Scarecrow teaches Collie the best techniques for hopping a boxcar and shows him the ropes at the hobo camps (or “jungles”), he also reveals himself to be a racist when a young black boy, Ike, winds up in their car. Following their detention at a Christian mission, Collie develops a friendship with Ike, and the two remain loyal friends and fellow travelers as they ride across the country. The two have their share of missteps, and always barely stay one step ahead of the law, but they share unforgettable adventures that, as one kindly character tells the boys, they’ll be able to tell their grandchildren about one day. The Train Jumper has the flavor of old-time family stories passed down from one generation to another. In an author’s note, Don Brown credits “the most precious of gems, those who lived history” with inspiring many of the anecdotes in its pages. The novel is full of authentic historical color, from mulligan stew and dust storms to tent revivals, minstrel shows and racial slurs. Thanks to these period details, Collie’s larger-than-life adventures feel convincingly grounded in Depression-era realities. What’s more, with its fast-paced narrative, adventure-laden scenes and suspenseful plot, the train Jumper will move even reluctant readers along at a speed as breathlessly exhilarating as an express locomotive. --Norah Piehl is a writer and editor in the Boston area.
School Library Journal
Gr 4-8–The year is 1934, the country is in the grips of the Depression, and 14-year-old Edward “Collie” Collier’s father has died. His older brother attempts to provide for the family but instead is cheating and drinking, and after he attacks his mother, he runs off to join the Civilian Conservation Corps, leaving Collie to mend her broken heart. Collie feels that the only thing to do is to find Bill and bring him back. Thus begin his adventures as a train jumper traveling across the country from the Midwest to Colorado. The story moves quickly, much like Collie as he learns the ropes of train jumping and living as a hobo from those he befriends on his journey. He sees the darker side of life, including racism and the slurs that accompany it; betrayal; violence; and starvation, but he also finds kindness and friendship. The matter-of-fact dialogue is easy to follow and draws readers into an accurate picture of life on the rails during the Depression.–Kimberly Monaghan, formerly at Vernon Area Public Library, IL