Sister of the Road: The Autobiography of Boxcar Bertha: By Ben Reitman, 205 pgs. By Todd Taylor

Feb 02, 2011

Megan Pants tracked this book down at the Los Angeles Central Library, which houses more than 2.1 million books. In the entire Los Angeles public system – connected to sixty-seven branches and serving the largest population of any library in the United States – there was only one copy. The book was the first printing from the 1930s. It was beat to shit, many of the pages were torn, and its spine was thrashed. It seemed, quite literally, when we both read it, like a first-hand account of history was slipping through our fingers. It made me really think. Here was this tiny book, written about a strong woman who unrepentantly lived by her rules her entire life. It's an invaluable first-hand account of the '20s and '30s by a non-wealthy woman. Yet, conversely, a modern "historian," Stephen Ambrose, a guy that uses a bunch of research hacks and has been caught, on many occasions, recounting historical inaccuracies, has 111 books readily available in the library system. That's a telling barometer of what's now widely endorsed as history, as something important to remember from the past.

I was stoked when I learned that AK Press reprinted it and made it available once again. Essentially, Sister of the Road is the tale of Boxcar Bertha, told by her, through Ben Reitman. What's startling about the book is how centered, strong, and defiant Bertha is throughout. Gratefully, she isn't apologetic about anything. What's furthermore refreshing is that she's compassionate. She's undeniably human. She feels. Although what she did is still, seventy years down the road, widely considered amoral, the book reads extremely even handed; loving, even. She never tries to shock the reader or pass judgement on anybody else. It's all matter of fact. It's almost impossible not to like her.

So much is in this book. Bertha tells tales about jumping into trains criss-crossing the United States, becoming a prostitute (and estimating sleeping with 15,000 men), having a lover cut in half by train wheels, of being in prison, of starting up or vastly improving social programs for vagrant women, of her numerous love affairs (her first was with her mother's lover), of her problem with people who live solely as thieves (they were hard to love and always suspicious), of her brushes with anarchists who are convicted of poisoning rich people, and of her interest in social statistics. It sounds wild when compressed, but when I read it, her voice was commanding – almost soothing – and her reasoning was solid. A free, non-regretful spirit was the lasting impression.

I was amazed to see that a big director made a movie "based on the book." Again, Megan got it at the library. It was complete ass. They made Bertha the leader of a ruthless gang, made the boxcar her shagging boudoir, and there's a lot of guns. Figures, but it makes me think some more – why is it so hard, or threatening, to locate and glorify such a stellar, strong female voice that looks at humanity (not just gender) as a whole? This book is awesome. I wish everyone could read it. If it was taught in high school, I'd bet more people would be interested in history because many of issues that Bertha talks about haven't been played out, even today. –Todd (AK Press, 674 A 23rd St., Oakland, CA94612-1163)

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