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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Sister of the Road: The Autobiography of Boxar Bertha (Ficition)

Author: Dr. Ben Reitman

Publisher: AK Press; New edition edition (May 1, 2002) (originally published in 1937).

Paperback 207 pages

Finished 1/30/2017

Amazon Listing 

          This is in fact a work of fiction, presented as an autobiography. The main character is an amalgamation of several hobo women that the author had met and interviewed over the years. The main character is an unconvincing personality who takes to the hobo lifestyle to experience everything she can of the world. Being raised by her mother to believe in free love and communism (though that word is not actually used), she has an odyssey through America as a tramp.
          While the story of female hobos was not often discussed in the literature of the time, the impact of the realities of life for them (prostitution, the possibilities of rape, etc.) is minimalized by the obvious fact that the author is pushing an agenda. He was a devout communist/anarchist and if you had only read his account you could easily believe that the whole of the hobo community was made up entirely of freewheeling labor union communists, struggling against religion and society, trying desperately to redefine dignity in existence. That every woman on the road had chosen to be there, was revolted by marriage, and an advocate of “free love”. That they were all one happy family, going to lectures at the International Workers of the World clubs, swinging their legs off of edge of speeding trains, and singing protest songs.
The author Dr. Ben Reitman
But, as we have seen in the autobiographies of Jim Tully and Carl Panzram, this was not the case. While it is true that a leftist agenda had been infused in the poorer sections of the United States populace in the 1930s, a natural result of the Great Depression, it was not as uniform as the author represents. Also it must be noted that once the depression was over and many of those people gained jobs, they felt their need for communism slip away.
He does offer us many case histories of the actual women hobos at the time and gives us snippets of their background. He collected these working in the public sector for relief agencies and the Chicago Society for the Prevention of Venereal Disease. And several historical figures from the underbelly of American life and the labor struggle may have been forgotten had they not been included in the text.
It is interesting that many of the things the author advocates for have come into being. The most obvious one is abortion. Reitman himself was an abortionist and perform many of the then illegal operations (according to him) as he offered free services to the poor, hobos, and prostitutes. The other is birth control and the distribution of methods of it, which also was outlawed at that time (except for the rhythm method). The author had previously served six months in prison for advocating and distributing pamphlets on birth control. In fact his life story is much more interesting that the book he wrote.
However the author constantly returns to the subject of free love and the idea that marriage was slavery for women. One of the characters stating that, “If I had a baby, I would feel free to dash its brains out.”  He goes into so much detail in fact that it seems like fantasy wish fulfillment. The main character swaps lovers easily, sharing one with her sister and mother, happily works as a prostitute giving most of her money to a pimp (she just wanted “the experience”), contracts syphilis and gonorrhea, but it “doesn’t bother her too much”, and so on.  While the ideas and descriptions of women working as prostitutes might have been shocking in 1937, it is almost mundane nowadays. Fifty Shades of Grey having inured us to many of these ideas. I often reflect how people back in the day would react to that text.
Amazingly this book was made into a feature film in 1972, starring David Carridine and Barbara Hershey, and directed by Martin Scorsese.  Called Boxcar Bertha, it is only loosely based on the book as there is no real narrative to speak of in it. In it she is a labor-organizer who fights against corrupt railroad companies then gets sucked into a life of crime. This is nowhere in the text. Most reviews give it a solid “ehhh”.

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

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