Inès Santi

April 2016


Book Report




Boxcar Bertha (Sister of the Road), by Ben Reitman, 1937




                Boxcar Bertha is an original book dealing with the conditions of hobo women throughout the 20th century. It was written by Ben Reitman, an American anarchist and the lover of Emma Goldman. He was also a physician who cared for the poor, known as “the hobo doctor”. He met many different hobo women during his career, who gave him the inspiration for his book. Indeed, Boxcar Bertha is written in the style of an autobiography, gathering all the main features of the genre: first person narrative, chronological depictions of events and experiences, self-analysis… However, the character of Boxcar Bertha (Bertha Thompson) is fictional. It can be considered as a mix of all the inspiring women whom Ben Reitman met. Thus, it provides a clear insight into the lives of hobo women and the people they met on the road, but it can sometimes seem a little unrealistic, as the main character meets a lot of influential people and lives a variety of experiences that may appear too big for a single person. To my mind, what is interesting about the format of this book is that it can be read both as a history of socialist, anarchist, radical or marginal groups in 20th century America, and as a personal story, a coming of age novel about a woman trying to find her way through a society that keeps invalidating her.  The story is not precisely situated in time, except for a direct reference to World War I in chapter II, when Bertha is eleven years-old. We can then deduce that she was born in the first years of the century, and that the story continues until the years of the Great Depression.


Historical information.


            The book contains interesting historical elements about people who played a role in the fight for workers’ rights or the conditions of the poor. In chapter IV, Bertha meets Jacob Coxey and talks of his protest march “of the Coxey Army”. We learn that it was a protest against unemployment organised in 1894, after the panic of 1893 deprived many people from their jobs. In chapter V, there is a reference to Lucy Parsons and the Haymarket Riot, but unfortunately, this is not developed much. The narrator then attends many speeches given by Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) members, dealing with stories of unemployment and hobo life. However, the references to IWW actions and the socialist and anarchist causes are not often precise. Their fight is an omnipresent theme throughout the novel, but I found it difficult to get a clear picture of their struggles and achievements. Obviously, this book is a novel and not a history book, so it is perfectly understandable that political events should not be fully developed, but a little more information about the social context may help the non-specialist reader understand.

            Although this book may not always contain precise historical facts, it offers a detailed picture of the different kinds of people fighting for their lives against the nefarious effects of the capitalist system at the start of the 20th century. Through the states of mind and the ideologies of the different people and groups presented in this book, we reach an understanding of the many of the important issues faced by those who were left behind.


Boxcar Bertha works with statisticians in the story, and this allows us to get precise figures about unemployment, hobo women and prostitutes. We learn that there were between 1.5 and 2 million hobos in the United States in the first decades of the 20th century, but only 1 woman for 200 men. Only 2% of migrants living in camps across the US were women. We are reminded that the majority of migrants left home in order to seek work, while only 4% of them travelled primarily for the love of adventure; this is a fact that we tend to forget because of the ideal of freedom preached by the narrator.


Finally, the book denounces the inhumanity of the capitalist system. It presents the hobo lifestyle as a somewhat peaceful and humane resistance, and social activism as the only weapon that people possessed against capitalism. There is a very significant passage in chapter X (p 131):


 Imagine que nous allions dans les charbonnages et les aciéries en disant aux

patrons : “Messieurs, les hommes qui travaillent pour vous ont des familles,

des enfants à nourrir. Ils ont besoin de cette somme par semaine.” Même en

parlant avec des sanglots dans la voix, même en leur présentant une douzaine

des misérables familles en question pour appuyer notre requête, cela

aurait-il la moindre efficacité ? Jusqu’à présent, seule la force a payé. 


This extract underlines the inhumanity of the capitalist system, driven by greedy men who do not care whether children starve as long as they make profit. It specifies that in order to change something to this system, the best means is to use force, for example with unions, strikes and riots, because the capitalists will not listen to the people’s distress. 


In a more peaceful way, I found the following quote from chapter XIX (p 237) striking:


A la colonie, il n’y avait pas d’enfants légitimes ou illégitimes. Il n’y avait

que des enfants en bonne santé, heureux et acceptés par tous.


I think that this quote shows how the hobos go against the current and ignore conventions.  They consider a child’s health and happiness before giving him a social status. If we stop for a second and think about it, we should always consider health and happiness as our priorities, but society makes it more and more difficult by alienating us in order to serve the interest of a minority. Humanity somewhat disappears behind money, and this story about hobos reminds us that it is always possible to reject the system.  


The image of women.


First, Boxcar Bertha bears the name of its female protagonist as a title. It is written from a strongly feminine point of view. Indeed, the narrator describes the people she meets along the road, but there is a particular focus on female characters and their individual stories, presenting how they ended up where they are. For example, when Bertha spends nights in social care institutions, she often relates the story of someone she meets there. The women who benefitted from the help provided by these institutions sometimes had children, and ended up taking part in all sorts of illegal businesses such as drug dealing or theft in order to survive.           


The main idea associated with womanhood from the beginning of the novel is freedom. For instance, we can see that the character of Bertha’s mother is a free and rebel woman who has no taboo and raises her children with various men, surrounded by hobos. This education encourages Bertha to choose her way of life, and become a hobo. She is nicknamed “Boxcar” Bertha because she travels illegally in train cars. Throughout the story, she claims her freedom by travelling anywhere she wants, having many lovers and taking risks. She wants to experience the true way of life of marginal people and observe criminals. For example, she spends many months with Otto and his group of robber friends, without directly taking part in the thefts herself.


 However, I think that there is a paradox in the story. Indeed, we learn that many women had to become prostitutes because it was the only means for them to survive in this society. We see in the novel that men often exploit the prostitutes by taking all of their money. Still, the narrator, who is so attached to her freedom and has a clear feminist point of view, decides to become a prostitute. I think that this is a way for the author to provide details about the prostitutes’ lives, but in my opinion, it also contradicts the image of women given at the beginning of the book.


In chapter III, a woman hobo tells Bertha that life on the road is easier for a woman is she considers her body as capital. This reflects the difficulty faced by women who sought freedom by travelling throughout the country. Indeed, while men did not have to deal with that kind of issues, women often had to prostitute themselves or just accept to have sex in exchange for small services, for example to prevent police officers from denouncing them for travelling illegally. I think that this is an interesting idea, because it underlines the ambivalence of women’s freedom at the time. Even when adopting a free life-style such as that of the hobos, they could never be completely free because they were women. What is more, women who prostituted themselves could catch diseases or get pregnant, and in both cases, that would isolate them even more by making them outcasts.




            The book is an excellent defence of all types of outcasts in 20th century America: hobos, poor workers, prostitutes, thieves… It also portrays free characters with an independent spirit, who are not afraid of living life in their own way. For example, Bertha’s father lives in a menage à trois, surrounded by books, and is not much concerned about what people might say.

However, though the author seems to deal with all the groups that do not fit in the capitalist society of the early 20th century, there is one group that appears to be ill-treated in the book: the homosexuals. For a book that deconstructs all the taboos of American society, I found that the approach to homosexuality was strongly prejudiced. It could have passed unnoticed if homosexuality was completely ignored by the author, but this is not the case. Lesbian hobos are mentioned several times in the text, without much development but with no major issue. However, at some point (p 148-149), a friend of the narrator expresses a homophobic opinion:


J’ai connu pas mal de gouines et de pédés et ça m’a toujours laissé une

impression de malaise. Mon antipathie à leur égard ne vient pas du fait que ce

sont des déviants […] mais parce qu’ils sont fondamentalement antisociaux,

égoïstes et prêts à exploiter les autres. […]

A mon avis, l’homosexualité est grandement artificielle – non seulement

les choix sexuels des homosexuels, mais, en règle générale, leur démarche,

leur langage et leur comportement. […] Le pire chez eux, c’est qu’ils sont

toujours à l’affût. Comme les drogués, ils ne se contentent pas de pratiquer,

il faut qu’ils fassent du prosélytisme. Ils cherchent à convertir tous ceux

qu’ils rencontrent. Autrement, ce ne serait pas grave : comme ils ne se

reproduisent pas, ils ne sont pas nombreux.


 When I read that, I tried to understand why such a passage should be in the book. First, we can say that at the time of the publication of the story, homosexuality was often concealed and not largely accepted; but then, so were prostitution and vagrancy. So why defend a group but attack the other?


Then, perhaps this passage is there to remind us that some people throughout the United States shared that opinion. Nevertheless, is that really necessary? I do not understand why the author should make a difference between homosexuals and other oppressed groups. Homosexuals were no more dangerous and no less human than any other group. What is more, Bertha seems to want to live as many experiences as she possibly can, even becoming a prostitute, but when it comes to homosexuality, she says, when invited to a party by a group of lesbians (p 225):


    Je voulais tout apprendre sur la vie, surtout sur les marginaux. Mais il y a

des choses que j’ai envie de remettre à plus tard pour l’instant. Merci, je

ne viendrai pas dimanche. 


Once again, why would the main character not hesitate a second to walk the streets with a group of robbers and to become a prostitute, but refuse to attend a party given by lesbians? To my mind, it is a shame to find such ideas in a book which otherwise provides a good understanding of the sub-groups that shaped America in the 20th century.


 Such categorisation tends to isolate different groups which should on the contrary unite because they have the same interests. Whether people were women, hobos, social union members, homosexuals, or fitted in several of these categories, their aim seemed to be the same when fighting the structure of society and capitalism. Maybe what comes out of this book in the end is the realisation that people were more divided than united, and that may be why capitalism has expanded so freely over time. Social differences still prevent people from uniting, as has been the case since the time of slavery.

To conclude, Boxcar Bertha is a great depiction of 20th century sub-groups in the United States from a feminine point of view, though it was written by a man. It provides useful information, but not many historical details. To put it in a nutshell, I think that this novel is a good starting point to reflect on a part of American society that has often been overlooked or even totally ignored by historians.