Endorsements | Reviews

Book About Great Depression is a Real Winner

Tehachapi (CA) News Columnist

July 16, 2007

After our son-in-law Arch married our daughter Maggie and got to know more about her strange tribe, he was particularly astonished to note that we habitually planned the next meal while still eating the preceding meal.

I had no logical explanation for that until author Mildred Armstrong Kalish recently published her book “Little Heathens” about growing up on an Iowa farm during the 1930s. Kalish’s marvelous book clears up a number of mysteries about why I don’t always think and behave as normal people do. My problem is that my Iowa background closely mirrors that of author Kalish.

In “Little Heathens” she notes that on Midwest farms so long ago, dinner was the noon meal while the evening meal, the one nutty Californians call dinner, was properly known as supper. She then goes on to explain that noon-time dinner in Iowa was the primary daily rendezvous for families and therefore the logical time and place to assign chores that had to be done to put supper on the table a few hours later. Naturally I came to California with this tradition stamped in my brain. Even my San Luis Obispo-raised wife now subscribes to it as well, even though she was raised with the misconception that dinner was served in the evening.

The sub-title to “Little Heathens” is “Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression”. Although it would seem to be aimed mostly at aged country hicks like me who matured in what may have been the most traumatic period in American history after the Civil War, the book has turned out to be a super-seller, praised by some of the brightest stars in contemporary literature. I’m pretty sure that even today’s grade school kids would find it fascinating reading. Adults of all ages and backgrounds will find it hard to put down.

In between colorful recollections of what it was like to live in a subsistence culture, Kalish offers many fine recipes for down home cuisine, simple food to die for. Somebody once said that members of depression-era farm families were the world’s best-fed paupers and Kalish tells, in minute detail, why that was. Nearly every farm produced a cornucopia of fruits, vegetables and animal products of a quality it would be hard to find today in the most upscale retail stores. What those 1930s farms did not produce was very much cash. Kalish explores this dilemma better than anybody I have ever read.

While I lived a comparatively privileged life in that time and place, I was almost eight years old before we had indoor plumbing. About that same time I was given my own shoes for the first time instead of wearing those my older brother had outgrown. I also attended country school, just as Kalish did. I was particularly touched by her mention of a sand table in her one-room school where kids could play after completing their classroom assignments. That must have been a common feature of country schools in those days because our two-room school also had a sand table where we second-graders could let our imaginations soar under the tutelage of “big” girls from the seventh and eighth grades next door.

Kalish, a retired university English teacher, has an exquisite sense of humor along with a faultless memory. One of the funniest parts of “Little Heathens” quotes common sayings from her childhood, such as the one about “going to hell in a handbasket” often used to describe the lousy economics of the day. She said she was reminded of that saying when she saw a bumper sticker recently that asked, “Where am I going and why am I in this handbasket?”.

Order a copy of “Little Heathens”. That’s an order from me.

Bill Mead