Britomar’s Road Diaries—coming home again

Britomar’s Road Diaries, by Britomar Lathrop, 1stBooks, 2002, $20.

Is this country headed for another Great Depression? One local author remembers the Depression vividly. She lived it with her parents, traveling around the country hobo style, and has recounted her experiences in a book, Britomar’s Road Diaries.

A promo on the book states: “When she was 10 years old and the rent was due, her father shouldered a hobo-style bedroll, her mother stuffed a satchel with necessaries and they left their Los Angeles home. This was the Great Depression, and for five years the three walked and hitchhiked from boxcar to hobo jungle to the shelter of trees and shacks. Through the San Joaquin and San Fernando valleys of California they went…”

Britomar Lathrop, a psychologist, managed to save some journals she kept at the age of 13, 14 and 15, when she was on the road. She and her parents walked, hitchhiked, rode the rails, slept under culverts and bridges. Sometimes they were told to move on by the local authorities. Sometimes, in unexpected acts of kindness and generosity, townspeople took them in and offered temporary lodging. “Brit” and her mother often went from house to house, “asking” (they didn’t like to call it begging) for food.

The Diaries record the full gamut of Lathrop’s emotions, from the highs of exultation in nature’s beauty to the lows of her personal discouragement with her family situation. One day in November 1934, she recorded: “This morning’s sunrise had so many feathery bits of orange in it that it made one love. It made you forget that such a thing as hate existed… Oh, it was so beautiful, it just filled one with love…” The next day the journal began: “Mother and Ray [her father] had a terrible fight this morning. And if they think I am going to stand for Ray knocking Mother down and stepping all over her they are crazy. Or I am.” A week later, she said, “I am dead tired of Ray’s eternal barking.” In fact, simply by being able to salvage what material she could, Lathrop achieved at least a moral victory. She recalled that whenever she had a journal filled, her father wanted her to burn it before he would buy her another. So she began improvising with found materials, such as used accounting ledgers, to save her precious Diaries.

Another way she saved her memories was in sketches, some in colored pencil. At 19, she was able to preserve some of these in linoleum block prints, four of which appear as illustrations in the book.

Two Rays are mentioned in the book. One is her father; the other is Ray Platt, an artist friend, who was 45 when she married him at 16. He taught her about art.

Today, reading about the abuse that Britomar suffered from her father’s battles with his own personal demons, it’s obvious that she is a survivor. As the family moved from place to place, it was not easy for Brit to establish personal relationships, and some of the ones she did establish were not always beneficial.

Brit’s father, Ray, was well educated and a writer himself. Lathrop even preserved some of his writing: “The Ballad of Boston Blackie in Hell” and “Parental Parenthesis.” But she referred to him as “crazy” and eventually had to leave for her own sanity’s sake. He thought of himself as a self-ordained preacher who couldn’t stand the hypocrisy he saw in others. But his brand of religion was brutal and unsympathetic. She remembered how he had once taken a baby doll given to her as a Christmas gift and burned it in an incinerator. “There was no mercy in him or his God this day,” she wrote. “On this day… this ‘graven image’ before him was an ‘abomination before God’ which could not be tolerated.” He could sometimes be kind, but his moods were unpredictable. If Britomar never understood him, she eventually came to forgive him–and even let him give an opinion of her work.

How long did it take her to write the book? “When I was 17, 18, 19, I first tried to transcribe it on a little typewriter with a non-standard keyboard,” Lathrop recalled. She tried to type out the whole of the Diaries. “But what I did,” she explained, “was that I left out all the violence. I couldn’t bear to put it in. That was the copy that my father actually saw. He was a very talented writer. There is a ballad by him in the book. All my life I’ve been trying to write it. I put it aside, sent it to one publisher, and they rejected it. I put it aside and didn’t open it until 1991. When I started reading it–it undid me emotionally. I was keeping it all hidden.” But last year, it was finally published by 1stBooks. Britomar’s Road Diaries is available from the publisher or Canterbury Books, or can be ordered from most bookstores.

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