A Desperate Teenager Searches for the Way Home

It is 1933, the depth of the Great Depression and the low point of 15-year-old Robert’s life. His father has died and his mother seeks ways to feed her five children. They lose their home and move into a tiny house.

In The Only Way Home, Jeanette Minniti describes how Robert, like many other older children of the times, makes decisions adults would find daunting.

Robert, a sensitive, vulnerable, strong-willed kid, leaves home with his friend Johnny to find work so they can bring home money to their families. They leave Illinois and head south, jumping into freight cars on trains that claimed the lives of many during the difficult times. Their luck is slim and Johnny returns home, leaving Robert to endure hunger, danger, and law enforcement. He meets 17-year-old Tucker and they quickly bond while scraping together small jobs and inventing ways to find enough food to get by. But not enough to return home.

They ride trains, even atop a passenger car, and warily meet hobos. Meanwhile, Robert’s mom longs to know his whereabouts and if he is still alive. Robert realizes his mom must be worried, but he won’t quit until he earns enough money to make a difference for his family.

His resilience, a violin, and his musical talent play roles in this moving story. So do several programs, including the Civilian Conservation Corps, created during the Franklin Roosevelt administration.

This is Minniti’s debut novel and I eagerly anticipate her next book. The Only Way Home captivated me. Being a child of poverty and raised by an immigrant mother who cleaned homes and hospital rooms to keep food on our table, I can relate to the family’s struggles, but I never faced the challenges Robert tackled. As a young adult, my mom had lived through the Depression, which raised the bar of desperation and hardship.

Question is, does Robert ever find his way home?

Boy at the Crossroads: Where Will He End Up?

Conley Ford is at a crossroads of his life at 13, one of 16 children and living an impoverished life in Tennessee with a domineering and abusive father. Known as Connie, he is lost, but grounded in his reality that he can no longer cope. He is well-liked at school, but his father removes the one thing he loved to do there: football.

He makes bad choices, gets arrested, then impulsively chooses to run away from home. He hitchhikes to New Orleans, where he establishes a life for himself by finding a job and a place to live. Looking more 17 than his real age, he is resilient, powered by a work ethic that comes from a life of constant chores and farm work.

Connie gives school and his family more chances, but breaks out on his own again and again. He may not see himself as academic, but he is a study in maturity beyond his years—most of the time.

The final crossroads of his teenage years takes him to a place I did not see coming, but no spoiler here.

In 1971, eleven years after graduating high school, Conley meets Mary and they marry. In 2021, she publishes his story, Boy at the Crossroads: From Teenage Runaway to Class President, saying parts are fictionalized.

Coming-of-age stories are popular and this is one of the best I have read. Perhaps we are drawn to such stories because we all go through times when coping with the changes of childhood is difficult and the onset of adulthood is intimidating.

Mary Ford’s writing is wonderful and she creates an endearing character who tells his entertaining story. This is her first novel (based on her husband’s true story) after retiring as a journalist.