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Rudy Rides the Rails: A Depression Era Story Review by Dy Edington

Dandi Daley Mackall
IllustratorChris Ellison
Sleeping Bear Press
310 North Main St., Ste 300
Chelsea, MI 48118

The Great Depression changed the lives of Americans in every corner of the country, and few families remained untouched by the effects of a failing economy and a long-standing drought. As with any period that brings challenges to human fortitude, the Depression left us with a legacy of sacrifice, despair, courage, and hope. Rudy Rides the Rails: A Depression Era Story gives its readers a glimpse of this time period through the eyes of a young boy.

Readers first meet 13-year-old Rudy in 1932, in Akron, Ohio. The world certainly has changed: there is no work, no food, no clothing to be had. Young Rudy joins hundreds of other young men on the railroads crossing America, hoping to find a way to make things better. He's been taught to "look out for you and yours, and nobody else," but finds it tough going for a boy on his own in such a harsh environment. Soon Rudy learns there is more to life on the rails than meets the eye, and there is more to life than looking out for one's own interests alone.

Author Dandi Daley Mackall presents, as my 8-year-old put it, "a lot of information in a very interesting way." She introduces an unfamiliar time and place in a way that brings the past into today's perspective and makes it accessible for young readers. While her writing style is not difficult to read, there are many opportunities to learn new vocabulary in Rudy Rides the Rails. Fortunately, for those of us unfamiliar with the terminology used on the rails, there is "A Hobo Glossary" in the back of the book. There is also a key to the marks and signs the travelers used. Thanks to detailed attention by the author and illustrator, these two items contribute as much to the readers' enjoyment as the story itself. I half expect to find the boys have etched a smiling cat onto our front porch. (But you'll have to read the story to know why!)

Chris Ellison's illustrations are a thrill for any fan of old western art. The depth and warmth of Ellison's work are reminiscent of Remington's or Russell's, and our whole family agreed that his illustrations alone were reason enough to purchase the book. I do not often find picture books that deliver this well in both illustration and text, but Rudy Rides the Rails is one that does. The illustrations include a few surprises for readers to enjoy as they read, or to discover upon re-reading.

Parents looking specifically for an evangelical perspective will not find it in this book. It is not written from a Christian perspective, but it is not anti-Christian either. There is no foul language, no taking the Lord's name in vain, nothing suggestive or lewd in the story at all. We've used the story for many family discussions, both formal and spontaneous, and find nothing objectionable in the lessons and morals of the story.

Considering the effort and quality that have gone into the text and illustrations, I am not thrilled with the durability of the binding. This is a large hardback (approximately 11.5" X 9.5"), the perfect size for laying open on your lap to read. The pages are sewn and holding up nicely, but we've had our copy for approximately three weeks, and the glue on the back cover has already come apart. For the price, I wish the binding were sturdier.

Rudy Rides the Rails works well for a wide range of ages. The story is easy enough to follow that our 3-year-old knows it well, and he enjoys the pictures almost as much as the adults in the house do. Our 6-year-old enjoys the story tremendously as a read-aloud, but the text is a bit much for an emerging-reader to tackle independently. Our 8-year-old has read and re-read it many times, and when I gathered my things to write this review, he reminded me gently that "Rudy" lives in the boys' room. As a family read-aloud, it's perfect. As a supplement to a study of the Depression Era, it fits well for the elementary levels as either an independent read or a read-aloud. The combination of style and presentation have guaranteed that Rudy Rides the Rails will be a family favorite for a long, long time.

Product review by Dy Edington, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC, May 2007