Line by Line by Barbara Hacha
Line by Line by Barbara Hacha is a unique coming of age story. Maddy
Skobel comes of age during the Depression, with her family hard hit by the country’s
downward economic plunge. Fleeing a drunken father, an abused mother and a rape, Maddy
becomes a hobo, hopping trains, sharing Mulligan stew by a fire and surviving by her wits
andthe kindness of others.
Author Barbara Hacha told me, “Maddy felt that there had to be a better way to live than what she had experienced as a child of an alcoholic and an ineffectual mother and that's what motivated her to strike out on her own. She had also connected with hobos in a jungle near her family diner, which gave her hope and a little insight to another life. The genesis of this story came about when I found out that a quarter-million teenagers rode the rails during the Great Depression, and many of them were women. I kept thinking about what it would have been like to ride the rails in the 1930s as a 17-year-old female, so I decided to create a character and find out!”
Hunger and food uncertainty are a part of hobos’ daily lives. Nonetheless, there is certain resilience among the hobos despite the hunger, the danger and the reasons that drove them to become wanderers. For the most part, food and shelter are shared, help and advice are given, resources are used and reused, and hard work is not avoided. In the epilogue, years after Maddy stops hopping trains, she proudly surveying her filled pantry, “I’ve been so hungry I could hardly stand up. Never again.”
Those of us who have family who lived through the Depression know of their frugality, understanding of impermanence and of the need never to take security for granted. In my childhood basement, my dad who had grown up impoverished during this time saved boxes of used nails, old shoes that could be saved for a time of need and shelves lined with cans of food—just in case.
I asked Barbara what struck her most about the Depression. “What struck me most was the lack of options. There were no backups. In other words, the banks failed and people lost their life savings—no bailouts. Schools closed because of lack of funding. There was no additional government support to keep them open. There were no jobs. There was no unemployment insurance. People truly were desperate. I think about what it must have been like for parents to be unable to provide the very basics for their children: housing, food, clothing. It had to be heartbreaking.”
Today’s hobos are a diverse bunch, noted Barbara. “The biggest thing I learned from the hobos was that you can't paint them with the same brush! The unifier is their love and knowledge of trains and their sense of community, but their backgrounds and occupations vary incredibly—from people who are Fulbright scholars with PhDs, to teachers, to laborers who took any job available. They also are a very patriotic group of people. This surprised me because they don't think much of society as the rest of us know it. Many of the present-day hobos are veterans—mostly from Vietnam (war). They love their country but have had a hard time reconnecting, so they stay on the fringes of our society.”
On the road as a hobo, meals are made from whatever is found or shared. Maddy talks about how delicious certain meals are, hunger increasing her gratitude and satisfaction for what she eats. Family, too, shifts its definition. Maddy’s family provided neither safety nor support; the hobos and people she encounters in her travels provide her security and community, as she expanded her concept of family. This historical novel deserves a place in the high school classroom as a picture of this era with a teenager leaving home, riding the trains as a hob and searching for a stable family and life.
Barbara noted, “Food becomes extremely important when you don't have any! It's not only essential for survival, but the form a meal takes can represent different parts of a culture. Mulligan stew involves cooperation and sharing—and it was both expected and a matter of pride to contribute.”