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Front Page > Issues > 2002 > November

Boxcar Bertha: Tales spun from the hobo world

By Ruth Kovacs

“In this, the fourth time that Boxcar Bertha has been reissued, we feel obliged for the first time to make it plain that this is in fact a work of fiction.” This first sentence of the Afterword may catch you by surprise! Ben Reitman presents Sister of the Road; The Autobiogra-phy of Boxcar Bertha as if it were to be believed. Reitman (1879-1942) has a background as hobo, gynecologist, writer, anarchist agitator and birth control activist. He was one of Emma Goldmans lovers, in prison for dissemination of information on birth control in 1918, and identified with the underclass. He hustled funds for the Hobo College in Chicago and collaborated with Nels Anderson on his On Hobos and Homelessness.

Reitman identifies the character of Bertha Thompson as an amlgam of at least three women he knew, but mostly modeled on a woman named Retta Toble. The events of Reitmans life parallel with those of Berthas too easily to be simply a fictional coincidence.

The book is fun to read (even when it tries to be serious) and is a real page-turner. One should suspect Bertha is not real as she manages to meet everyone you’ve ever heard of in union and activism issues of her day.

“I am thirty years old as I write this, and have been a hobo for fifteen years . . .” says Boxcar Bertha, daughter of Mother Thompson. Every one of the following 204 pages will keep you reading.

Bertha was interested in people. She records conversations from boxcars, around the campfire, Greenwich Village in New York, hotels and soup kitchens in Chicago, union meetings in Florida and back to Chicago whorehouses. She meets and talks, argues, steals and sleeps with tramps, yeggs, pimps, bohemians, drunks, wobblies and other radicals and provides us with a window to the wildly under-appreciated dropout culture that gets left out of history books.
To us it may seem she had a hard, dangerous, exciting life. But Bertha tells it like there was nothing or nobody that could shock her. She never whines or complains and is quick to see humor in most situations. She finds something warm and good in almost everyone she meets. The few who are just plain mean and abusive, she feels sorry for and manages to calmly walk away from the situation, knowing its time to move on.

In 1945 Bertha, her sister, Ena and their mother left the boarding house in Aberdeen and went to Little Rock to a co-operative colony of thirty-five families. They included “socialists, anarchists and free-thinkers, all opposed to war, and weary of the struggle for existence, blaming capitalism for their difficulties.” It was not a big adjustment. “Police and pinches, jails, bughouses, and joints seem to have been always a part of my life.”

The last two chapters of Bertha’s story outline, after fifteen hard years as a “Sister of the Road,” what “Bertha” sees as the problems and the solutions. You’ll have to decide for yourself if you agree. Perhaps from the 1937 perspective the conclusions have some validity, but knowing what we have seen since, we can’t describe it as right on the mark. In fact, it would be scary if this interesting book became any sort of guideline.

But now that you know its fiction and can keep an open mind, read about Berthas adventures and enjoy it as I did.

Ruth Kovacs, rather have the truth than fiction.



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