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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression - Mildred Armstrong Kalish This is a happy memoir. It’s sort of a latter day “Little House on the Prairie,” but intended for adults. There are no sour grapes (or grapes of wrath) dredged up here. And contrary to the subtitle, the childhood remembered here was well insulated from the hard times of the depression. The rural life depicted here was on a mortgage free farm owned by her grandfather. Though land rich, they were cash poor. So they needed to be self sufficient to the extent possible. But frugality was second nature to these folks, so I doubt the Depression made much difference on their lives. There is reference to her Grandpa’s brother and sister losing their farm, but this is as close as the financial woes of the 1930s depression era came to this family. Also Garrison Iowa, the location of this story, is quite distant from the “dust bowl” part of the country, so they were spared that experience as well.

I found it to be an enjoyable book with many stories that I could relate to. I also grew up on a farm, and I have many of my own memoires and opinions of farm life that are similar to those contained in this book. Even though I’m about two decades younger than the author, and certainly technology changed many things by the time I came along, I ended up being exposed to similar stories while growing up that were told by my parents and their contemporaries.

As a matter of fact, I could respond to many of these stories with my own tall tales. Probably one of the things I appreciate most about this book is that it reminded me of many little details about farm life that I would never have recalled on my own. One detail I share with this author is that we both attended a rural one-room grade school where our mothers had previously taught. Of course we’re talking different schools in different States, but for some reason that is a recollection I’ve come to appreciate as of late.

The book elaborates much on work in the kitchen since that’s where the women folk spent much of their time, and the author being a girl learned her cooking skills well. The book contains a number of recipes from which even I learned a few things. I was impressed with the author’s technique for avoiding soggy pie crust bottoms and her clever way of completely covering an ear of sweet corn with butter in less than a second using one hand.

This may be a happy memoir, but for the reader looking for unfairness and hurtful incidences, there are some of those in this book too. It is apparent that the author not only has a good memory, but she has a naturally happy disposition that tends to see the bright side of things.

It occurs to me that some people may wonder about the title of the book that can be perceived as a negative term. “Little Heathens” is the term that her prudish grandmother used to describe the rambunctious and free spirited mischievousness of her grandchildren. In that context, it was an affectionate expression.

One extraordinary detail she has included in this book is the exact wording of an employment contract for a rural teaching job that she was offered. The contract had extraordinary work requirements if measured against today's standards. It was almost a virtual description of slavery. She ended up not signing it for reasons that had nothing to do with the contract terms. But what I'm truly amazed about is that she apparently kept a copy of the contract all these years. Either that or she was able to find it through research work. She doesn't indicate which.

I hope when I'm the author's age that I will be able to remember distant memories as clearly as she does and that I will be as happy with my life's experiences as she is. I don't know what the author's plans are, but it appears that she could write a couple more memoirs if she was so inclined.