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July 1, 2007, Sunday Book Review

When Mildred Armstrong Kalish was around 5 years old, her father disappeared from her life forever. To put it more bluntly, the dad was banished — forced out of town by Mildred’s strict Iowa grandfather, a farmer, on account of “some transgression that was not to be disclosed to us children, though we overheard whispered references to bankruptcy, bootlegging and jail time.”

That Mildred’s father’s name was never again spoken in her presence is not remarkable, given the time and place. Rural, Methodist Iowans during the Great Depression were not a soft lot; when folks got unforgiven back then, they stayed unforgiven. What is remarkable, however, is that Mildred’s shamed father — after being mentioned briefly in Chapter 1 of her lovely memoir, “Little Heathens” — is never spoken of again for the entire duration of this book.

Now that, I must say, flies in the face of all current literary convention. No self-respecting modern memoirist (myself included!) would ever abandon such a juicy bit of suffering as a banished father. Surely one could milk volumes of pain (and book deals) from such misfortune! But Kalish — while publishing in 2007 — still holds the values of 1935, when people coped quite differently with their sorrows. After her father disappeared, Mildred and her mother and siblings simply moved on — emotionally and literally. And they moved in with those strict Iowan grandparents (two rigid souls who “never completely made it into the 20th century”) which is where young Mildred’s story really commences — on a farm where “a family of five was now the responsibility of two old people,” and the business of instilling character in the young ones began in earnest.

Some of what follows is unsurprising. You’ll never guess it, but these kids were taught to work. They planted potatoes, tended livestock, hayed fields and were beaten for any lapses in judgment. They did without luxuries (electricity, leisure, heat) and were never coddled on account of their tender youth. (“Childhood was generally considered to be a disease,” Kalish recalls, “or, at the very least, a disability, to be ignored for the most part, and remedied as quickly as possible.”)

For anyone from an old-school farming background, this is familiar territory. “We were taught that if you bought something it should last forever — or as close to forever as we could contrive,” Kalish reports predictably. Or: “When one of us kids received a scratch, cut or puncture, we didn’t run to the house to be taken care of.” If all that “Little Heathens” offered, then, were more such hard-times homilies, this would not be much of a book. But this memoir is richer than that, filled with fervency, urgency and one amazing twist, which surprised me to the point of a delighted, audible gasp: Mildred Armstrong Kalish absolutely loved her childhood.

It’s not merely that she appreciated the values instilled by the Great Depression, or that now, in her older years, she wants to preserve memories of a lost time (though all this is true). No — beyond that, she reports quite convincingly that she had a flat-out ball growing up (“It was quite a romp”) and her terrifically soaring love for those childhood memories saturates this book with pure charm, while coaxing the reader into the most unexpected series of sensations: joy, affection, wonder and even envy.

It’s a rare thing, indeed, for any human to feel she was truly the luckiest of all mortals to have been raised exactly when and where she was. But how did young Mildred — a homely, chubby, fatherless kid, reared on a hardscrabble Iowa farm during the Great Depression by a melancholy mother and regimented grandparents who referred to their shamed daughter’s children as “spawn” — how did such a seemingly unlucky little being manage to work up the genius to relish every minute of her life?

I think maybe it had something to do with all that sky. Having lived a disproportionate sum of her childhood outdoors, Kalish was greatly overexposed to “the high blue sky” of Iowa and all that blue oxygen and soaring heavenly vaulting seems to have made her a little intoxicated. But she was also dosed by more than her share of barefoot expeditions over “the astonishingly thick green grass that carpets the woods in Iowa.” She gets almost woozy remembering the sight and scent of the “giant pink bouquet” that arrived every spring when the farm’s one crab apple tree climaxed into bloom. And Kalish swears that the privilege of inhaling “the sweet fragrance emanating from the clean body of a colt, calf, lamb, puppy or kitten that had been sleeping on the grass and warmed by the sun” is one of life’s great “pagan pleasures.”

Later in life, Kalish became a professor, and while the foundation of her writing is still English-teacher English (orderly, with perfect posture) her old pagan rhythms seep through every disciplined paragraph. “This was our world,” she writes, but one gets the feeling that Garrison, Iowa, was really her world, which she experienced with the awe of a mystic. In the violet dusk of a cornfield, in the cool mornings on her way to chores, on the long, unsupervised walks to school, in the decadence of eating bacon drippings, heavy cream and ground-cherries, Kalish’s simple life routinely aroused her to an almost erotic extreme. (Then again, this was the only kind of eroticism available; the poor girl was never taught even the starkest fundamentals of human sexuality, regretting that “in those days, we were supposed to get such information from the gutter. Alas! I was deprived of the gutter, too!”)

But she thrilled her senses in other ways. A typically exhilarating scene finds young Mildred and her sister — filthy from a hard day of haying — getting washed on the porch by their mother (“a soaping from head to toe”), after which they ran “naked as jaybirds across the grassy lawn to the windmill. Once there, Sis and I pumped pails of refreshing cold water and doused each other all over until we fairly tingled.” (Her strict grandmother, witnessing such wild-child abandon, shook her head and declared, “A body’d think ... that you’d been peed on a stump and hatched by the sun,” and it is with utmost respect to the author that I agree; for all the exuberance here, those girls might very well have sprouted from the earth.)

Kalish is wise enough to know that the last link to the past is usually language, and rather than lament what’s been lost, she stays connected to her youthful world by using its gleeful, if outdated, lingo. (Tell me the last time you heard someone exclaim, “Not on your tintype!” or “Gosh all hemlock!”) She admits self-deprecatingly that there were certain expressions she heard spoken so often as a child that she grew up mistakenly thinking they were each a single word: “agoodwoman, hardearnedmoney, agoodhardworker, alittleheathen, adrunkenbum, demonrum and agoodwoolskirt.”

Memories too can run together like this, becoming mishmashed over time. Not with Mildred Armstrong Kalish, though. As a natural-born memoirist (by which I mean not only “one who writes an autobiography” but also “one who remembers everything”), Kalish has kept her memories tidily ordered for decades. Now she has unpacked and worked them into a story that is not only trustworthy and useful (have I mentioned the recipe for homemade marshmallows?) but is also polished by real, rare happiness.

It is a very good book, indeed.

In fact, it is averyveryverygoodbook.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s most recent book is the memoir Eat, Pray, Love.