Kit Saves the Day

Published in 2001; author Valerie Tripp; illustrators Walter Raine and Susan McAliley


It's now a year since Kit's father lost his job, and Kit feels stagnated. Her brother is working in Montana at Glacier National Park, with the Civilian Conservation Corps, but she's stuck at home doing the same boring chores. She gets some excitement when a young hobo named Will helps harvest the family's suburban garden in exchange for food. He enthralls Kit with stories about life on the rails. Will stays with the family briefly, helping them make preserves and teaching Kit and Stirling a bit about hobo life before he heads to a hobo camp, intent on catching the next train. Kit and Stirling are a little uncomfortable when he talks about faking illnesses to gain sympathy or taking what should be his fair share if he's shortchanged for this labor (his example is if he spends all day harvesting potatoes only to get two wormy ones as payment, he might slip two good ones in his pocket). The ten-year-olds aren't sure it's right for him to do that, but Will says essentially that desperate times call for desperate measures; that's why at 15 he's run away from his impoverished family so they can stretch their little money a bit further.

Soon after Will leaves, Kit realizes they didn't send him away with any food to share. Aunt Millie packs some of the harvest for Kit and Stirling to take to the hobo camp. Kit's excited to see where the adventurous hoboes live, but when she arrives, she sees how utterly destitute they are. She also notes that there are children, even babies, living there. They didn't jump on a train for the experience, they did it out of desperation. Seeing the conditions the hoboes live in makes Kit grateful for what she has. Maybe her clothes are too tight and there isn't quite enough food, but she has a home.

Another hobo, Lex, wanders over and starts trash-talking Will. He says he's the best freight jumper there is, and tells Kit and Stirling he can teach them how to do it. Will tries to discourage Kit, but Lex goads her into trying anyway. Stirling and Will come too, and it's a good thing, because the train leads them further from town, not closer as Lex said it would, and they get thrown off the train by railroad bulls (men hired to keep hoboes and tramps from riding the trains illegally)...and tossed in jail for a night. Will is able to give Kit his hat to disguise the fact that she's a girl, so the three won't be separated (Lex bailed as soon as the train stopped). It's not long before the sheriff has Kit remove the hat though, and he takes her to a different cell. As she's being dragged away, Will shows her one of the hobo symbols he taught her and Stirling: pretend to be sick. It doesn't take much pretending; the dinner was made partly of spoiled food (probably all the jail could afford). The sheriff lets her use the bathroom, and she's able to slip out a small window. She has to get back home to tell her family that Stirling's in jail!

It's a long way back home. Kit has to cross a high bridge and cling to the narrow edge when a train rushes by. She almost can't muster the energy to make it home, but the thought of Stirling and Will crammed in a jail cell overnight spurs her on. She finally makes it, and her parents borrow a boarder's car to rescue the boys. Kit takes the opportunity to tell the sheriff that should treat the hoboes with dignity, but he brushes her off. As Will leaves for Oregon to harvest apples--promising to try to stop in Montana to say hi to Charlie--Kit reflects that while she and Stirling are safe at home, the hoboes she met have no home. Someone should tell their story and help them. Maybe a young budding journalist.

Looking Back

Some areas of the country were hit harder by the Depression than others. Because of this, people sometimes traveled to find work, sometimes with no destination in mind. Hoboes would hitch illegal and dangerous rides by jumping on passing trains, hopeful that in a few stops, they'd be somewhere they could find work. Large groups of these travelers would congregate in make-shift camps, where they could bring any food or whatever they earned to share it with the other residents of the "jungles." Though homeless and without real employment, hoboes often had a sense of pride, because they did everything they could to earn what was given to them (one hobo was quoted describing the difference between hoboes, tramps, and bums: a hobo will travel and work, a tramp will travel but not work, and a bum will neither travel nor work). President Roosevelt's job programs offered opportunities for hoboes and others to have long-term employment. One especially popular program was the Civilian Conservation Corps, which put people to work restoring and building parks. You can still find many parks today with CCC markers.


This book is dedicated to "Walter Rane, Ingrid Slamer, and Caitlin Waite, who brought Kit to life so artfully, with thanks."

It's sort of fitting that FDR would put people to work maintaining national parks, when his cousin Teddy Roosevelt was such a huge advocate of them.

No comments: