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Bookworm: ‘Roadside Americans’ for trippers, former hippies and history buffs

‘We Are Power’ shows activism is hard work and sometimes painful

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Correspondent

“Roadside Americans: The Rise and fall of Hitchhiking in a Changing Nation”

  • By Jack Reid
  • c. 2020, The University of North Carolina Press
  • $28.99, higher in Canada; 251 pages

Your thumb is out. You're heading that-a-way. And now you wait. Do people stop for hitchhikers these days? You wonder, as you stand by the road, cars zoom-zooming past you, breeze ruffling your hair. Is it safe to hitchhike in America 2020, or as in the new book "Roadside Americans" by Jack Reid, are those days long gone?

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In 1932, a young man traveling from Dixon, Illinois to Davenport, Iowa, stepped to the side of the highway, and stuck out his thumb. The country was in the grip of the Depression then, but Ronald Reagan made it to his new job just fine.

“Roadside Americans: The Rise and fall of Hitchhiking in a Changing Nation” by Jack Reid.

Though many Boomers spent their youths with thumbs cocked, we tend to see hitchhiking as a quaint anachronism today. In Reagan's youth, however, when few people owned vehicles, catching a ride with a friendly stranger was a way for adventure as well as a mode of travel and, buoyed by an innocent sense of safety, white men and women hitchhiked in relatively equal numbers. When the Depression hit, hitch hiking's role in American society increased greatly, though it had its detractors.

That cynicism lasted until World War II, when folks felt it was one's "duty" to offer a ride to a soldier on the side of the road, often regardless of race; likewise, it was neighborly to do the same for someone stranded by rationing. The government even advocated ride-sharing as a patriotic thing, which most Americans embraced.

Between 1964 and the mid-80s, hitchhiking was part cheap transportation, part meditation. It was a way to see the country, to learn about one's self, and to touch base with America. Reid calls it a chance at "authenticity," though it was becoming a lesson in frustration. The country was changing. Roadside camping had lost its charm. Vehicle ownership was getting cheaper. And then there were matters of "personal safety" ...

It's a dangerous ol' world out there, right? And hitchhiking is for fools – or so you say. And maybe so did your grandmother; says author Jack Reid, our attitudes toward hitchhiking have ridden a wave that rose and fell like a hilly road.

That road is not without its potholes here.

Though it's an essential look at history that isn't often examined, "Roadside Americans" is good, but it's repetitious enough to be noticeable. That's one thing; the bigger surprise is that it doesn't feel very new, since a lot of hitch hiking's story is linked with major, oft-studied events in America's past. If you've read about them, you've read much of this.

And yet, there are nuggets contained herein, often in the diaries and first-hand accounts that Reid shares, and in the statistics, he presents from contemporary polling. These show a side of hitchhiking as he describes it: necessary, useful, and frightening. Those nuggets are perfectly-placed, just where this book glows.

Though it leans more toward the scholarly, "Roadside Americans" ends up being a decent, even delightful, read that's perfect for trippers, former hippies, and history buffs. If you're armchair traveling this summer, it gets a thumbs up.

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If travel is what you're missing now, check out "From Here to There: The Art and Science of Finding and Losing Our Way" by Michael Bond. It's about GPS, your sense of direction, knowing where you are, and being willing to forget where you're going.

“We Are Power: How Nonviolent Activism Changes the World”

  • By Todd Hasak-Lowy
  • c. 2020, Abrams Books
  • $18.99, $23.99 Canada; 304 pages

You put a lot of work into your sign. When you were done, what was once the side of a cardboard box suddenly became a note to the world – but as you were making it, you have to admit that you wondered if one cardboard sign was going to make much of a difference. You were protesting, but who would notice? Read "We Are Power" by Todd Hasak-Lowy and wonder no more.

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There you were, sitting in History class last year, thinking that there were So. Many. Wars. Right, but get this: history is much more than that. Hasak-Lowy says that history is also about "conflicts of a different sort...."

Take, for instance, the movement for suffrage: women in the early part of the last century had zero rights. Zero, but they wanted to be able to vote more than anything. It took women like Alice Paul years before protests and marches gained them (and us!) that right but the entire time, they stayed the course. Yes, it meant sacrifices, both physical and mental, but Paul and her sisters stuck with the plan.

“We Are Power: How Nonviolent Activism Changes the World” by Todd Hasak-Lowy.

Mohandas Gandhi used the word "satyagraha" to describe intentional, firm, truthful, and forceful nonviolent action or resistance. Gandhi embraced satyagraha when he peacefully organized 300 million Indians against British rule, knowing that there was strength in numbers.

Though he was a twenty-seven-year-old "inexperienced pastor" who'd been tapped to lead a boycott he'd barely had opportunity to grasp, Martin Luther King realized that nonviolent resistance was dangerous, but worth it. It was courageous, not cowardly.

And just a few years ago, a small braid-wearing teenager stepped to a microphone to address world leaders about climate change and the urgency for doing something solid about it. By her courage, Greta Thunberg became a satyagrahi, and brought nonviolent activism to the forefront of the 21st century.

Here's the first thing you should know about "We Are Power": it's not a planner for anarchy and it's not a how-to book; if anything, it's a how-not-to book.

Indeed, through stories and a few period photographs, author Todd Hasak-Lowy shows young readers something important about making change: that when an individual becomes part of a well-thought-out, peaceful collective, things can happen without warfare. There's a reason, in other words, that it's called "NONviolent activism."

For the teen who's a bit on the pessimistic side, or is eagerly ambivalent about involvement, that can be inspirational, even exciting – and yet, Hasak-Lowy doesn't get cuddly about the realities: activism is hard work and sometimes literal pain, and it might take years to see the fruits of one's labor. History shows that activists like those in this book have braved danger, but it also shows that steady, insistent confrontation works.

For the 10-to-14-year-old who's been riveted by recent news or activities in their hometowns, this book will inspire and inform, and it will help them find parallels between yesterday and today. They'll want "We Are Power" for its truth and its comprehensiveness, so find it. For the future of all, that's a good sign.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.