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When I picked up this volume and flipped through the pages, I decided itwas a scrapbook-style autobiography and put it aside to read while onvacation. Filled with charming sketches, family photographs and lettersto and from Monte Holm, I anticipated an entertaining quick read -- perfectfor the many hours I would spend on a train traveling from Los Angeles toPittsburgh. Of course, my experience riding the rails didn't compare toMonte's, but I thought the story of a hobo during the depression wouldenhance my appreciation of the trip.
It did, but in ways I never expected. Until the death of his mother, MonteHolm has what seems to be an idyllic childhood. Part of a large, lovingfamily, he enjoys the special social status due the son of a beloved localminister.
For example, when a barnstormer visits their town, Monte's father invitesthe young pilot to spend the night at the parsonage. The children aredelighted and, at dinner, they deluge him with questions about airplanes.Later on, that same man becomes famous. It's one of Monte's cherishedchildhood memories; the day he met the Lone Eagle.
Monte's family life ends all too soon. When his mother dies, some of thechildren are adopted out to other families and, after a short time, hisfather remarries.
'Once a Hobo' tells the story of a 13-year-old boy who is thrown out of hisfamily home by his father's new wife. In 1930, Monte Holm sets out on afive-year odyssey that takes him from town-to-town in search of work, foodand shelter. On the road, he finds hunger, rejection and loneliness.Mooney, as he was known then, uses his wit and determination to survivewhen many others did not.
Part 'Wizard of Oz', part 'Huck Finn' and part 'Grapes of Wrath,' the bookis more than a simple adventure story about a boy seeking a home. It ismore than a look at America worn thin by the Great Depression. It is anunselfconscious exploration of situational ethics; how people act in timesof extended hardship.
The behavior Monte sees ranges from kindness to extreme cruelty. One hoboshares what little food he has, while another commits murder for a pancake.Some storekeepers give the boy a job while others chase him away. Somerailroad workers turn a blind eye to the dozens of hungry scarecrowshopping their trains, while others beat them to a pulp with whips. A farmfamily with limited resources shares their food, while restaurateurssprinkle dirt over discarded scraps of food to deny starving people a biteto eat.
The behavior that Monte sees begs several questions. When everyone isimpacted by the same disaster, what causes one person to share and anotherto horde? When everyone is in the same boat, why do some folks care aboutthe boat and others about themselves? Why do some people collaborate? Whydo some go it alone?
Monte is remarkably nonjudgmental and that makes him a likeable narrator.His stories touch us because they seem familiar; even the outlandish ones.His characters do too. You recognize them by the way they act understress. Neither villain nor hero, they struggle to find their way; justlike each of us.
Although guided by the early teachings of his preacher father, Monte isexposed to all manners of human ugliness during his years on the road.Even so, he seems to cherish the goodness in people while accepting thatfear, desperation and hunger can rip the most religious person from theirmoral underpinnings. A freezing man will do almost anything to escape theelements. Monte understands, but he focuses his energy on finding a warmsolution rather than complaining about the cold. For a wild child, growingup under difficult circumstances, it's a practical and positive perspective-- a philosophy that emphasizes self reliance, responsibility and activism.Even when he's down, Monte is never out of the game. He says many times inhis narrative, "I never was afraid of work." It is his core value; thatpiece of himself that he can count on. It rescues him time and again. Notjust as a means to earn the essentials of life, but as a way to sustainhope and self esteem.
As he grows from an inexperienced young boy to a seasoned worker, he keepshis eye on what he needs to do to better his chances in the world. Hetakes every opportunity to learn something new. For example, at a timewhen many kids walked away from school, Monte makes sure that he gets hisdiploma. Imagine the will power that takes for an unsupervised,half-starved teenager with no place to live.
During long stretches, when Monte tends a herd of sheep in Montana, heconcentrates on doing a good job. While riding the 'rods' under a box car,he witnesses the horrific death of a fellow hobo at the hands of a railroadsecurity cop. He stands in soup lines, sleeps in doorways, works on farms.He deals with solitude and survival, at an age when I was still afraid ofthe dark. Each experience enriches him and leads him toward a life that hecan't articulate at first. Then, as he matures, the hazy dream becomesclear; a home, a family, a job. The very things that many of us take forgranted.
This book tugs at the heart in subtle ways. I found myself spending moreand more time with Monte even when I wasn't reading. At the grocery store,I thought about a scrawny young boy with an empty stomach when I picked outthose special tidbits that we love, but don't really need. While drivingmy car, I imagined the delight Monte felt when he was given his firstautomobile by a man he'd helped. While crossing the street, I feltcompelled to tuck a fiver into the hands of an old woman pushing a grocerycart filled with her worldly possessions. Would generosity come so easilyif I was hungry?
Where hard times destroy some folks, they strengthen others. In 'Once aHobo,' the years of struggle teach Monte to appreciate all the things,small and large, that makes up life. Grateful for a handful of candy, awarm set of 'tin clothes,' a loving wife, a beautiful daughter,grandchildren, a business -- Monte knows what many of us don't -- that thetrip is as important as the destination.