Excerpt from LINE By LINE
Eddie is coming. The last time I saw him, he was eleven. In my mind he is still my scrawny little brother, but he will turn twenty-six this year. I wonder what kind of man Eddie is now. Does he drink, like our father?
What will he think of me? There’s so much he doesn’t know. I walk to my pantry, thinking that I should see what groceries I need to buy to make him a nice dinner, but my eyes are drawn to the second shelf from the bottom. It holds neatly stacked cans of tuna, tomato soup, and beans of all kinds. Hidden behind that food is a box printed with bold, black letters that spell out Durrand Vineyards. It's not wine inside that box, no matter what the fancy script claims, and I don't need to open it to remember what it holds.
When Eddie comes, I might let him look inside, let him take out the things in it and see. Each item holds part of my story, and if they are all laid out, they will make a picture. Not like the kind of picture printed on a jigsaw puzzle, with its orderly, neat edges defining a scene as its patterned knobs and notches cleanly snap together, but more like the jagged pieces of a discarded photograph once ripped into pieces and later taped back together. The picture is still there, even if it's distorted by tape and the torn edges don't quite meet.
I’ve been so hungry I could hardly stand up. Never again. That’s the other reason I keep that box in my pantry. When I've used enough food that I can start to read what the box used to hold—Finger Lakes Merlot—I get nervous and go grocery shopping again.
I go to check the guest room for the umpteenth time and add a blanket to the foot of the bed. I remember what it feels like to sleep on cold ground, and I want to be sure Eddie is comfortable. But the pantry pulls me back, and I dig out the box from the second shelf and tug on the twine that has kept my history shut inside for all these years. I reach in and pull out a pair of sturdy shoes that have traveled thousands of miles. The soles, or what's left of them, are so thin that if I wore the shoes again, I’d feel the hard edges of stones beneath my feet. And if it had rained, the mud would ooze into the places where the uppers have pulled away from the soles, where the stitching just plain rotted away and gave up holding things together.
My fingers feel inside the shoes and I panic for a moment, until I find the cellophane that’s wrapped around a folded up twenty-dollar bill. The day I bought this house, I cleaned the mud off of the shoes, bought brand-new laces for them, pushed that money inside one of them, just in case, and then laid the shoes in the box. Next to them, I placed a couple of sketchbooks; the smallest is one that traveled nearly as many miles as my shoes.
I pick up the pretty little manicure set that had once belonged to my mother. I wonder if Eddie will remember it. I carried that set with me the whole time. The leather case is shaped like a half moon when it's zipped shut and it has an inset of needlepointed flowers. The oval inset makes me think of a wide-open eye, which is how I learned to see the world, even when I was very young. I unzip the case and look at the tools. Some of them are dinged up and worn, but they're still quite serviceable. A buffalo nickel falls out of the case and rolls across the floor. I pick it up, feel its carved surface, and put it back in the box with everything else. I retie the twine, set the box back on the shelf, and wait for Eddie. It has been fifteen years.
Chapter 1—Summer, 1931
The train was late. I sat with Eddie on a wooden bench, squinting down the tracks into the late afternoon sun that was turning the rails into blazing strips of metal. I wished I had brought my sketchbook. I would have tried to capture that glow, even though my mother keeps telling me that with times being so hard, nobody can make a living as an artist these days—especially a girl.
“Do you think he likes to go fishing?” Eddie asked.
“Who?” I was distracted, trying to memorize the scene so I could draw it later.
“Raymond! Who else?” Eddie said.
“How would I know?” I shot back. “He lives near the stockyards in Chicago. He’s probably never even been fishing.”
Eddie’s face registered disappointment, and I felt a familiar pang of protectiveness. He was eleven—five and a half years younger than me—and I’d looked after him for as long as I could remember. I was the one who made our oatmeal and got us both to school—not my mother, who left early to serve breakfast at the Paradise Diner, and not my father, who at that time of morning usually was snoring off the previous night’s bender.
“If he doesn’t know how to fish, maybe you can teach him,” I said.
Eddie brightened. “Yeah. It’s gonna be fun having another boy around.”
I hope you’re right, I thought. But I had been wiping down counters in the diner when Aunt Ruby read the letter from Lydia, Raymond’s mother:
Raymond took the death of his father very hard, and he's become a bit difficult. He just graduated high school and it's time that he finds a job, and of course, there aren't any. I'm worried that he's got too much time on his hands and nothing to do, and he'll get into trouble. I'm hoping that you might be willing to let him visit for awhile, at least for the summer, and maybe put him to work in your diner. Room and board would be all the payment he needs, and I would be very grateful..."
My mother, tight-lipped, had asked, "What do you suppose she means about Raymond being difficult?" I suspected she was worried about having to cope with another male who wouldn't hold up his end. As it was, working at the diner helped her buffer my father’s excesses.
"My sister never was very good at handling that boy," Uncle George said. "She pretty much left that up to Mark. Lydia was much better with the girls. Now that his father is dead, Raymond probably thinks he doesn't have to answer to Lydia."
"Or anyone, maybe," my mother said. I heard that from where I was standing, but Aunt Ruby didn't seem to, even though she was sitting right across the booth from my mother.
“Well, we could use the help,” Uncle George said. My mother said no more. It is my aunt and uncle’s diner.
I felt the train moments before it appeared. The vibrations rumbled through the platform, traveling through the benches and through my bones in passing, as if water had surged from a dam, filling all the inlets and coves in its path as it rushed by. Then the shrill whistle filled my ears and the huge locomotive rumbled into view, spewing steam and black smoke.
The train stopped, and people converged on the platform, exiting from several cars at once. Most of the passengers looked weary. Many of the women wore faded cotton dresses and cloche hats that had lost their smart shape a couple of years ago. Some of the men wore suits that were beginning to get threadbare and shiny. A couple of well-dressed travelers stuck out from the crowd like sore thumbs—people who somehow still managed to prosper while everybody else was trying to make do.
I watched for boys who appeared to be a couple of years older than me. I had no idea what Raymond looked like, but I tried to pick him out anyway. A short, muscular boy with sandy-blond hair sticking out from under a tweed cap strode out of a car. He walked with a springy step, like he was a boxer itching for a fight. Behind him came a taller, stocky boy with dark-brown, slicked-back hair. He was hatless, and he sauntered across the platform, carrying a battered brown suitcase in one hand and shading his eyes with the other.
I guessed that the boxer type was probably Raymond. Besides the attitude, he was carrying two bags; the slick-headed boy had only one. Uncle George stood next to me, watching the crowd, looking at faces. "I believe that's Raymond," he said, motioning in the direction of the boxer type wearing the tweed cap. “He’s a spitting image of his father.”
I poked Eddie in the ribs. "I should have bet you a nickel I could spot him. I thought it was the boy with the cap!"
Uncle George walked toward the boxer boy and then past him, offering a handshake to the boy with the slicked-back hair. "You're Raymond, aren't you?" Uncle George said.
Eddie grinned and jabbed his elbow into my side. "Yeah, I woulda bet you...so pay up!"
The boy shook my uncle’s hand. "Yes," was all he said.
"Well, I'm your Uncle George and these are your cousins, Maddy and Eddie."
"Hullo," Raymond said, barely looking at us.
A little way down the track, the locomotive let off a long, steady hiss of steam. Raymond glanced down the track, following the sound with his eyes, then stared directly at me. His eyes were a dark brown, like his hair, but they weren't friendly. They were just brown, like a shade had been pulled behind them and you couldn't see in. I looked away, feeling uncomfortable, but not before I caught a hint of a smirk as I broke eye contact with him.
Uncle George stepped between us, slapping Raymond on the back. "Welcome to New Harmony, Raymond," he said. "I think you're going to like it here."
Raymond shrugged. Then Uncle George, Raymond, and Eddie started walking shoulder to shoulder toward the diner, leaving me behind. I could have run to catch up, but I was miffed at being forgotten about. I walked slowly, trailing far behind, but no one even noticed.
Reader's Guide for Line by Line
Suggested Discussion Questions:
1. Maddy comes of age during the early years of the Great Depression. In what ways do you think the Depression shaped her outlook on life? Was she a product of her times? Do you think you are a product of your times?
2. What influenced Maddy’s decision to leave New Harmony? Would you have made the same choice?
3. Maddy knocks on Doris’s door to ask for food. During the Great Depression, many people were willing to share food with hobos and the homeless. Why do you think they were generous, even if they didn’t have a lot to give? Do you think this generosity still exists today, or does society tend to “blame the victim”? How would you react if someone came to your back door asking for food or shelter?
4.How would you define prosperity? How would someone like Maddy or Henry define it?
5. Prohibition was in full force in 1931-1932, the time Maddy was a hobo. How do you think it impacted on people’s lives back then? Do you think it was a worthy experiment or a big mistake?
6. Rita wrote to Maddy about people who came to watch the dance marathon. “There’s only seven couples left and the crowds are getting bigger. They smell blood I guess, which includes my foot…” What attracted people to attend the marathons, especially when, as the marathon progressed, spectators were witnessing participants’ exhaustion and suffering? Is there a parallel with some kind of event today?
7. At Thanksgiving, Maddy thinks about family: “I thought about how there were two kinds of families: the ones made up of people related by blood, which you’re automatically part of, like it or not, and about the families you choose for yourself.” Do you agree with her observation? How do you define family?
8. Maddy and Rita join the Bonus March, hoping to persuade Congress to pay the promised bonus to WWI veterans. Congress claimed it couldn’t afford it. Should Congress have granted it early? Was Hoover right to order the military to drive out the veterans after the bonus was defeated and the veterans were told to go home?
9. Today, many people have never heard of the Bonus March. Do you think it should be taught as part of U.S. history? Why do you think it is excluded?
10. Henry tells Maddy that he was all set to marry a woman named Anna, but then the Depression hit and he lost his job and had no income to support a wife or family. “I still don’t have a thing to offer her. I find it hard to believe I ever will….Sometimes a man gets caught up on things he can’t control.” Do you think Henry’s life was permanently changed by the Depression? Do you think life-altering experiences are happening to people in today’s economy?
11. What do you think of Maddy’s decision about marriage to Phillipe? What influenced her decision, and why?
12. After being apart for 15 years, do you think Maddy and Eddie will reestablish a relationship? Why or why not?
13.Could it be argued that the Great Depression itself is a character in this book?
The 1930s: Millions of Americans are riding the rails, crisscrossing the country looking for work and something to eat. They carry very few possessions and are driven both by desperation and hope. Through Maddy's eyes, Line by Line explores larger themes that especially resonate today: coming of age in times of economic devastation, trust in our government, and the life-shaping influence of family—both the family that we are born into and the family we create as we surround ourselves with those who matter most.
As the Great Depression deepens and her family disintegrates, Maddy Skobel flees her central Ohio town—by freight train—determined to make her own way. Learning to survive as a hobo while facing hardship, danger, and violence, Maddy must discover her own resourcefulness and strengths.
Through Maddy's eyes, Line by Line explores larger themes that especially resonate today: coming of age in times of economic devastation, trust in our government, and the life-shaping influence of family—both the family that we are born into and the family we create as we surround ourselves with those who matter most.
Praise for Line by Line:
Barbara Hacha's Line by Line is by far the best fictionalized treatment of a young woman's life on the rails during the Great Depression. Boxcar Bertha has nothing on Maddy Skobel, whose story you will love—especially the details of its happy outcome.
—Luther the Jet, National Hobo King
Beautifully crafted–Maddy’s journey takes her through hobo jungles, railroads, and vineyards, exposing her to a host of people and events that enable her to gain wisdom, love, and strength along the way. A rich and unforgettable novel describing a time that not only tested the mettle of the protagonist but of the country.
—J. Everett Prewitt, author of Snake Walkers
Maddy is a compelling character who discovers her inner strength the hard way. Wresting control of her world from circumstances not of her making, Maddy responds with heart and a survivor’s instinct.
—Mary Lee Corlett, author of
Belle: The Amazing, Astonishingly Magical Journey
of an Artfully Painted Lady
A riveting coming of age story set during the Great Depression. Each character seems to spring from the gelatin prints of Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans... I couldn’t put this lovingly crafted novel down and wished it would never end.
Maddy refuses to live the life fate has handed her. Maddy will stay with you long after you’ve finished this book.