Written by Rob Vollmer; Illustrated by Pablo C. Callejo
NBM Publishing, N.Y., 2008, 64 pp.
You can just forget what your momma tell you. She’s a weak woman elsewise my brother wouldn’t have run off on her like that…. If you’ve got a bit of sense and any kind of Christian raising, you’ll be a man about this and slip off without raising no fuss. (p. 8)
So begins this realistic fiction account of a thirteen-year-old boy forced to leave home due to an absent father, an overworked mother, four younger siblings, and a tired older Aunt who has just run out of patience. Set during the Great Depression, the story begins when Tucker Freeman leaves home, hops a train and embarks on a journey of discovery. This graphic novel focuses on the difficulties endured by many children of that time. Even today children are separated from their families in order to help by working or reducing the number of mouths to be fed.
The Castaways utilizes a graphic novel format to grimly depict the hunger, fear, and desperation, as well as the hope, love, and family that permeated a broken America during its Great Depression. Tucker is asked to leave his Aunt’s farm so that there might be more food for the younger children. He discovers the dangers of the road and the rails the first time he hops a train. Yard bosses are armed and dangerous, employed by the railroads to keep people from riding for free. Tucker meets a kind man, Elijah, one of the few Black men he has ever seen, who helps him learn the ropes. Elijah’s and Tucker’s adventures take them from the railroad yard, to a hobo camp, back on the trains, to finally looking down both barrels of a shotgun. Through Elijah, Tucker learns the value of a friendship that can transcend race and age.
The author Rob Vollmar is a native of Oklahoma. He earned a BA in English from the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in 1995 and is currently employed at USAO Communications Marketing Office as a staff writer. He has published in World Literature Today, The Comics Journal, and USAO’s Crosstimbers. Vollmar related via email that the illustrator Pablo G. Callejo lives in Leon, Spain, and illustrates for both Rob Vollmar and Ted Rall. He primarily uses a six-block format for his intricate drawings with a two color look to enhance them. Pablo’s art process is a blend of natural pencils and computer design. He does panel layout and composition in pencils and then builds the images in layers using Photoshop. He is a completely self-taught artist, not counting basic high school art instruction.
The inspiration for the story is a PBS documentary called “Riding the Rails” that details the lives of some 250,000 children and teenagers who left home willingly and/or otherwise, during the Great Depression. Meticulously researched and based on oral histories from his own family’s experiences, Vollmar has composed a well written story which rings with both authenticity and accuracy. His grandmother had a difficult childhood, one where her father was gone all the time. The author grew up near the stockyards in both Cabool and Springfield, the two principal locations for the book, adding credibility to the story. The Castaways was nominated for an Eisner in the Best Single Issue/ One Shot category. The Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards are prizes given for creative achievement in American comic books, sometimes referred to as the Comics Industry’s equivalent of the Oscar Awards.
The Castaways, written for all ages, is a welcome addition to social studies curriculum on the Great Depression to pair with fiction such as The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939). Additional YA literature pairings include Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse (1997), Bud not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis (1999), and The Thirties: America and the Great Depression by Fon W. Boardman, Jr. (1967).
Margaret Bly, Teacher Librarian, Roskruge K-8 Bilingual School, Tucson, AZ