I’ve always liked books where girls try to be boys. I wasn’t really a classic tomboy (I hated wearing dresses and bows, but did like to play with dolls; I was uncoordinated and hated sports, but I wouldn’t wear pink). But I wished that I was!
Better yet, I wished I was a boy – boys always seemed to be climbing trees, building things, playing in mud puddles, and having more adventures than girls. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are boys. Ender Wiggin is a boy. Encyclopedia Brown is a boy. Frodo Baggins is a hobbit-boy. Even Peter Rabbit had more fun and fame than Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail. And sure, Alice had adventures, but she was mostly the victim of her circumstances a la Charlie Bucket rather than….but let’s not get started about the relative roles of boys and girls in kidlit when I was growing up.
What I meant to say was that I quite liked Nowhere to Call Home, a story about a girl, who pretends to be a boy, and rides the rails with hobos during the Great Depression.
Frances is the only daughter of a widower, who finds himself penniless as a result of Black Monday. In desperation, he kills himself, leaving his daughter in the care of her only living relative, Aunt Bushnell. Rather than go to stay with a woman she barely knows, Frances skips the train, buys some trousers, cuts her hair, and becomes a Frankie Blue, a greenhorn hobo. Luckily for Frances/Frankie, she meets up with another young hobo, “Stewpot”, who is less green and who takes Frankie under his wing. Frankie and Stew travel through the U.S. together, and Frankie learns a few tough lessons about the difference between the romance of being a hobo, and the truth about hunger, fear and discrimination. The book is more than just an adventure about a plucky heroine…it is an adventure about a plucky heroine who is watching the Depression happen.
DeFelice manages to hide Frankie’s “life lessons” into the storyline so neatly that there is no tiresome preaching and the book doesn’t feel educational in a sneaky or sly way (not like, say, Little Women, which nearly made me grieve at how disappointed I was upon a re-reading, but I digress). DeFelice simply brings us into Frankie’s world and evokes sympathy for Frankie Blue. When Frankie, exhausted, hungry, and heartsore, becomes angry at the unfairness around her, all I could do was wholeheartedly agree…and wonder what Frankie was going to do next.
I won’t spoil the ending, but it was a good one. Heart-lifting (thank goodness, after all that Depression), but not schmaltzy nor too convenient. Just – like the rest of this book – believable.
Reading Ages: It’s hard to say. The prose, descriptions, conversations, and themes are relatively simple, but Frankie is 12, and Stew is 15, and I always liked reading about people my own age. I’d say as young as 10 for an avid and advanced reader, but on average probably 12-13.
Rating: A secure B+
Best Thing: The hobo nicknames. Stewpot? Frankie Blue? Nice!
Favourite Part: The last page of the book. It was a brilliant and touching surprise.
Least Believable Thing: That no one questions why Frankie Blue, the homeless hobo, would have a bunch of rich-person girly belongings (they do get stolen early on, so after that it’s not an issue).