Little Heathens : Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression
I tell of a time, a place, and a way of life long gone. For many years I have had the urge to describe that treasure trove, lest it vanish forever. So, partly in response to the basic human instinct to share feelings and experiences, and partly for the sheer joy and excitement of it all, I report on my early life. It was quite a romp.
So begins Mildred Kalish's story of growing up on her grandparents' Iowa farm during the depths of the Great Depression. With her father banished from the household for mysterious transgressions, five-year-old Mildred and her family could easily have been overwhelmed by the challenge of simply trying to survive. This, however, is not a tale of suffering.
Kalish counts herself among the lucky of that era. She had caring grandparents who possessed--and valiantly tried to impose--all the pioneer virtues of their forebears, teachers who inspired and befriended her, and a barnyard full of animals ready to be tamed and loved. She and her siblings and their cousins from the farm across the way played as hard as they worked, running barefoot through the fields, as free and wild as they dared.
Filled with recipes and how-tos for everything from catching and skinning a rabbit to preparing homemade skin and hair beautifiers, apple cream pie, and the world's best head cheese (start by scrubbing the head of the pig until it is pink and clean), Little Heathens portrays a world of hardship and hard work tempered by simple rewards. There was the unsurpassed flavor of tender new dandelion greens harvested as soon as the snow melted; the taste of crystal clear marble-sized balls of honey robbed from a bumblebee nest; the sweet smell from the body of a lamb sleeping on sun-warmed grass; and the magical quality of oat shocking under the light of a full harvest moon.
Little Heathens offers a loving but realistic portrait of a "hearty-handshake Methodist" family that gave its members a remarkable legacy of kinship, kindness, and remembered pleasures. Recounted in a luminous narrative filled with tenderness and humor, Kalish's memoir of her childhood shows how the right stuff can make even the bleakest of times seem like "quite a romp."
From the Hardcover edition.
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
Kalish's memoir of her Iowa childhood, set against the backdrop of the Depression, captures a vanished way of traditional living and a specific moment in American history in a story both illuminating and memorable. Kalish lived with her siblings, mother and grandparents-seven in all-both in a town home and, in warmer weather, out on a farm. The lifestyle was frugal in the extreme: "The only things my grandparents spent money on were tea, coffee, sugar, salt, white flour, cloth and kerosene." But in spite of the austere conditions, Kalish's memories are mostly happy ones: keeping the farm and home going, caring for animals, cooking elaborate multi-course meals and washing the large family's laundry once a week, by hand. Here, too, are stories of gossiping in the kitchen, digging a hole to China with the "Big Kids" and making head cheese at butchering time. Kalish skillfully rises above bitterness and sentiment, giving her memoir a clear-eyed narrative voice that puts to fine use a lifetime of careful observation: "Observing the abundance of life around us was just so naturally a part of our days on the farm that it became a habit." Simple, detailed and honest, this is a refreshing and informative read for anyone interested in the struggles of average Americans in the thick of the Great Depression.
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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May 28, 2007
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Excerpt from Little Heathens by Mildred Armstrong Kalish
My childhood came to a virtual halt when I was around five years old. That was when my grandfather banished my father from our lives forever for some transgression that was not to be disclosed to us children, though we overheard whispered references to bankruptcy, bootlegging, and jail time. His name was never again spoken in our presence; he just abruptly disappeared from our lives. The shame and disgrace that enveloped our family as a result of these events, along with the ensuing divorce, just about destroyed my mother. Is it possible today to make anyone understand the harsh judgment of such failures in the late 1920's? Throughout my entire life, whenever I was asked about my father, I always said that he was dead. When he actually died I never knew.
So it was that Grandma and Grandpa chose to make our family of five--Mama, my ten-year-old brother Jack, my eight-year-old brother John, my one-year-old sister Avis, and me--their responsibility. They decided to settle us on the smallest of Grandpa's four farms, which was located about three miles from the village of Garrison, where they had retired after a lifetime of farming. However, because the fierce blizzards and subzero temperatures of Iowa winters made it hazardous to walk to the one-room rural school we would be attending, it had been arranged that we would live with Grandma and Grandpa in Garrison and attend school there from January until the school year ended in mid-May. At that time our family would move out to the farm. Each year from then on, we went to school in the country from September until Christmas, then moved back to Garrison and finished the school year in town.
Our new life began when we arrived at Grandma and Grandpa's on a cold winter day in February. The house we moved into that day was a large, substantial structure. It was located about seven miles from Vinton, the seat of Benton County. Grandpa was born, raised, married, and buried all within an eight-mile radius of Garrison and Yankee Grove, the wooded area where his parents had settled as pioneers.
Though the house we shared boasted eight large rooms, suggesting that we had lots of space and privacy, in fact, all seven of us spent most of our waking hours confined to the living room and the kitchen because they were the only rooms that were heated. The frigid upstairs bedrooms were rarely used except for sleeping. The conditions under which we lived were a perfect demonstration of the wisdom of Kahlil Gibran's observation: "Let there be spaces in your togetherness."
Grandpa and Grandma must have had some unspoken, perhaps even unrecognized, resentment at having toiled all their lives raising their own family, only to be confronted with the inescapable fact that now, retired at last, they had to do the whole thing all over again and raise their daughter's "spawn," as Grandma often referred to us. And all of this was happening at the worst possible time, during the Depression.
All three generations suffered. We kids were under the constant surveillance of Grandma and Grandpa, who were critical of how we spent our days, how we spoke and dressed, and how we behaved. (In a good many ways, they never quite made it into the twentieth century.) Suddenly we were subjected to a completely new set of rules, which governed every aspect of our lives. The whole family had to go to bed at a set time every night and get up at a set time every morning. We all had to be fully dressed for the day before we ate breakfast. We all had to sit down at a properly set table three times a day, and we all had to eat what was served on that table. Generally Grandpa would choose the menu for breakfast because he was the first one up.