There have been some great graphic novels in the past five years set in the American Great Depression period of history. With Soupy leaves home, Cecil Castellucci explores the surprisingly close and self-regulated society of 1930s hobos and how they traveled the US via rail cars. There is quite a bit of pathos here with some magical realism mixed in. If the subject is perhaps highly over idealized, we still have a lovely story of finding oneself amidst hardship and loss to enjoy.
Young Pearl runs away from home, sporting a black eye from her abusive father. When she befriends a hobo, she is ushered into the world of the itinerant; those who seek freedom, are running from a disappointing or disturbing past, or have many other reasons for the nomadic existence. It’s a life of jumping from car to car, making secret sign language to know which houses will give charity, and scrounging in trash cans for food. But for Pearl, renamed Soupy and dressed as a boy, it’s a place where she finally finds a ‘home’. But time is merciless and her beloved companion, old “ramshackle”, is sick and she knows that her time with him is short. Will she find the courage to reveal her true self to Ram, or will she hide behind the clothes and pageboy cap of a boy forever?
Because this is a story with a healthy dose of magical realism, Ram will be exceedingly wise and true. He will find beauty in every part of the world and teach Pearl how to dream and be happy with the smallest of things. She will grow to love Ram even as she knows that he is dying. At the same time, she will become embroiled in hobo politics – one of them is betraying the group and a few near captures by the police are spelling disaster for the hobos. Pearl believes the rumors about who was behind the recent stabbings and unrest – but does she truly know the guilty party?
After picking the book to read, I was surprised to see that the author was Cecil Castellucci. I had greatly enjoyed her Tin Star YA science fiction novel and recognized the same deep pathos that she brings to her works in Soupy Leaves Home. Loneliness, outcasts, the desire to belong and be loved, and finding oneself are the hallmarks I’ve found in her work.
The artwork here is clean and very appropriate to the story. Simple but nuanced black and white lines are evocative of 1930s artwork without being slavish. A monochromatic color wash adds interest without overwhelming the illustration work. The text is sparing and doesn’t overwhelm.
In all, this is a lovely self contained story that was highly researched by the author. At the end of the book is a nice explanation of hobo conventions, the society hierarchy, and some of the travails they faced in 1930s America. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.