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HFC Editorial Review of "The Only Way Home" by Jeanette Minniti


“It seems as if anything beautiful has been stripped away each year of this horrible depression. It’s left people bereft, going through one month to the next with less and less hope.”

Desperate times. Danger on the rails. A journey to save a family.

The Only Way Home is the story of one boy’s determination to survive loss and hardship to help his family — and how fate and a violin touch the course of his life.

Fans of Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and Sold On a Monday by Kristina Morris will love this story set during the Great Depression of a fatherless boy fighting to keep his family together.

When we first meet fifteen-year-old Robert, he is awaiting sentencing in a hot and humid courtroom in Macon Georgia after he was picked up for vagrancy. He spends a night in jail and considers the bleak options before him in a country wallowing in the grey dust of the Great Depression. His story is like so many young boys of the era, pushed head-long into adulthood, left fatherless by the Great War or sickness, and determined to help his mother and siblings survive an unspeakable future.

He hits the rails with his friend, Johnny, who at the outset has already succumbed to doubt and fear and has returned home to Illinois. Robert is not about to go back to his mother empty-handed. So even after a ‘slap on the wrist’ from the judge, he is back riding ‘hobo-style’ on the dangerous train lines crossing the United States.

Robert’s determination and bravery are traits to admire, and his character is an easy one to love. So much about his journey, about his ‘fading memories’, of ‘life before everything changed’, resonates from those trying times, but also speaks volumes to any reader in any time period. He is searching for something to cling to, as is most of the other people who cross his path, such as the red-headed Tucker who joins up with him along the way. Each jump onto a railroad car is a jump of faith and hope, praying that the next jerk of the speeding train doesn’t send you flying off onto the rocks below. That’s life, isn’t it?

And along the way, in each situation, he finds helping hands. Good people who extend themselves even in their own time of need. I especially enjoyed the stop he and Tucker make at a strawberry farm to make a little cash to send home to their families. It is here that you learn a great deal about the pain Robert is suffering, and about how music helps him deal with the memories of his father. And all the while, his gift helps someone else cope, which shows the depth of his heart and the reasons behind the desire to get back home to his family even when offered a ‘dream’ life.

Tucker is a great supporting character in the story, and you begin to wonder about all the young boys and girls who crossed paths on the trains during that time period and where they ended up. One of the reasons this story felt so authentic and real to me is that my own grandfather was one of those boys who rode the trains during the 30s – while he didn’t tell me a lot about his journeys, I knew enough to be able to see him and hear his voice through the character of Robert. My grandfather even hopped the train in South Georgia to the Chicago's World Fair to find work, the same as Robert and Tucker do in the story.

Authentic and real, I think that is the best way to describe this book.

And then, Lucille, Robert’s mother, who wakes up everyday in her meager attempt to bring some sort of normality to the rest of Robert’s siblings in a world far from normal. The way the author describes ‘her effort each day wasn’t only about her family getting through difficult times, but championing the exuberance toward life her husband intended them to have as they grew to be adults’ was a brilliant way of showing the sacrifice so many young mothers made during a time when many were on their own and raising six, seven, or sometimes ten children while the fathers died or left home to find work. My own grandmother raised fourteen during that time!

I think one of the things that really stands out to me about this book is the strength of the human spirit to survive. We live in a world of so much excess that I wonder how people today would manage under the same kind of circumstances. More, more, more.... me, me, me... is the mantra of today. This book fixes squarely on the idea of less, less, less, and ‘what can I do to help someone else’. Also, the appreciation of something as simple as finding a straw-filled mattress to sleep on, or the rockers sitting out in front of a general store, or a good meal, or the warmth of a family. This is definitely a book for today, a book which teaches lessons we all need – that of thankfulness and lending a hand, and of family.

“The Only Way Home” by Jeanette Minniti receives five stars from The Historical Fiction Company and a “Highly Recommended” award.


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