Part of our research has been to look at the cultural aspects and influences on homelessness throughout American history. That would include literature and the way it not only portrayed the issue of homelessness, but also explained the issue in relation to the time period. Yesterday, I took most of the day to look through children’s literature and the way it dealt with and/or explained homelessness. I found that a lot was concentrated around or about The Great Depression era. Some books like Rudy Rides the Rails, Boxcar Molly: A Story of the Great Depression and Kit Saves the Day, depict the struggles and realities of the time period in a way that children could understand and relate to. Some of it was embedded within the story, but others added a separate description of the time period.
For instance, Kit Saves the Day is part of the American Girl stories that focused on various time periods in American history. In this case, Kit’s story is told during the Great Depression, where she meets Will Shepard, a young hobo from Texas. The additional note to this is that these books not only explained the time period, but also seemed to depict an image of what a “hobo” was. When Kit first meets Will, “Kit knew he was a hobo. He had the same scruffy, scrawny look as all the hobos and tramps who came to the house
looking for food.” In a way, I think children’s literature played a role in perceptions, in this case, of the hobo culture. There is another reference/explanation in The Mystery of the Hobo’s Message, where a grandfather explains to his grandson, “The first thing you have to understand about a hobo is that he did not want to be called a tramp or a bum. Tramps and bums were dishonest people and they did not want to work. On the other hand, a hobo thought of himself as an honest, wondering worker. Some hoboes wondered because there was no work back home. Others liked the adventure of moving from place to place.” That in itself gives a child the simple explanation that he/she can retain, in this case, pertaining to what a hobo is, which is the term I found most prevalent in literature related to The Great Depression.
This brings me to the main point of my blog post. Though some literature is fiction, it often draws from truth. Upon finding books, I found one by Terry Fox titled Hobo Signs (2000). Turns out it is a book of 52 hobo signs, which are each entitled with its particular meaning. Christine Tackle explains, “Hobo signs are pictographs still used by hoboes in the United States. The signs are put up in fences, signposts, enclosures or house walls for information of other hoboes. Most of them are only legible by insiders, a few clear to all.” The signs were also prevalent in European countries, and were frequently used until the beginning of WWI, where their use declined afterwards. The Great Depression, however, brought about a revival of their use, particularly in larger cities.
I found the book to be fascinating — seeing how hoboes looked out for each other and found a means of communication. Then, I stumbled into a couple of the children’s book where one particular sign was prevalent to the plot. A cat as a sign means “a kind-hearted lady lives here.” In Kit Saves The Day, Will explains that he stopped by Aunt Millie’s home because someone else had drawn the image. In Rudy Rides the Rails, the main character, who
lived life as a hobo after his family struggled during the depression, settles down and ends the book by drawing a smiling cat on his front porch, so folks who passed by would always know they’d find kindness in his home. Then, The Mystery of the Hobo’s Message, deals entirely with depicting and understanding the signs left behind by grandpa’s father, who once lived as a hobo.
In the end, children’s literature paints often a happy picture, with the kind-hearted lady sign or an ending where someone finds a happy home. Real-life cases were not always that way, but I think it at least paved a simple understating. In the illustrations, sometimes I think literature depicted a stereotype
image of a hobo or a homeless person, but that is all part of what we are looking at — to understand the cultural influences and portrayals of periods throughout American history.