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Once a Hobo: The Autobiography of Monte Holm

by Monte Holm and Dennis Clay

When I picked up this volume and flipped through the pages, I decided it was a scrapbook-style autobiography and put it aside to read while on vacation. Filled with charming sketches, family photographs and letters to and from Monte Holm, I anticipated an entertaining quick read -- perfect for the many hours I would spend on a train traveling from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh. Of course, my experience riding the rails didn't compare to Monte's, but I thought the story of a hobo during the depression would enhance my appreciation of the trip.

It did, but in ways I never expected. Until the death of his mother, Monte Holm has what seems to be an idyllic childhood. Part of a large, loving family, he enjoys the special social status due the son of a beloved local minister.

For example, when a barnstormer visits their town, Monte's father invites the young pilot to spend the night at the parsonage. The children are delighted and, at dinner, they deluge him with questions about airplanes. Later on, that same man becomes famous. It's one of Monte's cherished childhood memories; the day he met the Lone Eagle.

Monte's family life ends all too soon. When his mother dies, some of the children are adopted out to other families and, after a short time, his father remarries.

'Once a Hobo' tells the story of a 13-year-old boy who is thrown out of his family home by his father's new wife. In 1930, Monte Holm sets out on a five-year odyssey that takes him from town-to-town in search of work, food and shelter. On the road, he finds hunger, rejection and loneliness. Mooney, as he was known then, uses his wit and determination to survive when many others did not.

Part 'Wizard of Oz', part 'Huck Finn' and part 'Grapes of Wrath,' the book is more than a simple adventure story about a boy seeking a home. It is more than a look at America worn thin by the Great Depression. It is an unselfconscious exploration of situational ethics; how people act in times of extended hardship.

The behavior Monte sees ranges from kindness to extreme cruelty. One hobo shares what little food he has, while another commits murder for a pancake. Some storekeepers give the boy a job while others chase him away. Some railroad workers turn a blind eye to the dozens of hungry scarecrows hopping their trains, while others beat them to a pulp with whips. A farm family with limited resources shares their food, while restaurateurs sprinkle dirt over discarded scraps of food to deny starving people a bite to eat.

The behavior that Monte sees begs several questions. When everyone is impacted by the same disaster, what causes one person to share and another to horde? When everyone is in the same boat, why do some folks care about the boat and others about themselves? Why do some people collaborate? Why do some go it alone?

Monte is remarkably nonjudgmental and that makes him a likeable narrator. His stories touch us because they seem familiar; even the outlandish ones. His characters do too. You recognize them by the way they act under stress. Neither villain nor hero, they struggle to find their way; just like each of us.

Although guided by the early teachings of his preacher father, Monte is exposed to all manners of human ugliness during his years on the road. Even so, he seems to cherish the goodness in people while accepting that fear, desperation and hunger can rip the most religious person from their moral underpinnings. A freezing man will do almost anything to escape the elements. Monte understands, but he focuses his energy on finding a warm solution rather than complaining about the cold. For a wild child, growing up under difficult circumstances, it's a practical and positive perspective -- a philosophy that emphasizes self reliance, responsibility and activism. Even when he's down, Monte is never out of the game. He says many times in his narrative, "I never was afraid of work." It is his core value; that piece of himself that he can count on. It rescues him time and again. Not just as a means to earn the essentials of life, but as a way to sustain hope and self esteem.

As he grows from an inexperienced young boy to a seasoned worker, he keeps his eye on what he needs to do to better his chances in the world. He takes every opportunity to learn something new. For example, at a time when many kids walked away from school, Monte makes sure that he gets his diploma. Imagine the will power that takes for an unsupervised, half-starved teenager with no place to live.

During long stretches, when Monte tends a herd of sheep in Montana, he concentrates on doing a good job. While riding the 'rods' under a box car, he witnesses the horrific death of a fellow hobo at the hands of a railroad security cop. He stands in soup lines, sleeps in doorways, works on farms. He deals with solitude and survival, at an age when I was still afraid of the dark. Each experience enriches him and leads him toward a life that he can't articulate at first. Then, as he matures, the hazy dream becomes clear; a home, a family, a job. The very things that many of us take for granted.

This book tugs at the heart in subtle ways. I found myself spending more and more time with Monte even when I wasn't reading. At the grocery store, I thought about a scrawny young boy with an empty stomach when I picked out those special tidbits that we love, but don't really need. While driving my car, I imagined the delight Monte felt when he was given his first automobile by a man he'd helped. While crossing the street, I felt compelled to tuck a fiver into the hands of an old woman pushing a grocery cart filled with her worldly possessions. Would generosity come so easily if I was hungry?

Where hard times destroy some folks, they strengthen others. In 'Once a Hobo,' the years of struggle teach Monte to appreciate all the things, small and large, that makes up life. Grateful for a handful of candy, a warm set of 'tin clothes,' a loving wife, a beautiful daughter, grandchildren, a business -- Monte knows what many of us don't -- that the trip is as important as the destination.

Title: Once a Hobo: The Autobiography of Monte Holm
Author: Monte Holm and Dennis Clay
Publisher: Proctor Publications LLC
ISBN: 1882792769

Review written by: Joyce Faulkner
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