Curmudgeonalia
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October 15, 2008

Little Heathens

Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm during the Great Depression
Mildred Armstrong Kalish – ISBN 9780553384426

It does not do this superb memoir justice to say it is good. It is a veryveryvery good book; indeed one of the best you will read anytime soon (!) . . . beautifully crafted, clean and joyful in its descriptions of growing up on a self-sustaining farm in middle America during the depression (as the title indicates.)

Kalish composed this narrative primarily for her family--expressly for her grandchildren--but it is a wonderfully readable and entertaining chronicle of the pleasures of life, even during times of gritty hardship. It emphasizes the old epigram: “there is little difference between people, but that little difference makes a big difference; the little difference is attitude, the big difference is whether it is good or bad.”

She observes that: “I want my own family to be aware of the foods, the ingenuity, the knowledge, the skills and above all, the everlasting work that was required to survive when resources and supplies were limited. But most of all I want them to enjoy the kinship of souls that is created when everyone gathers in the kitchen to prepare a meal together. Although cooking today is vastly easier, there is still nothing like putting a good meal on the table to make people feel they have done something meaningful.”

Her family was—as were most at the time—resolutely opposed to displaying emotions. She tells us that when her brother came home from WW II a wounded hero, her grandfather quickly put his hand on “Jack’s” shoulder, but as quickly withdrew it, saying softly, “I’m glad you’re back. I never thought I’d ever see you again.” His eyes were misty but that was it. Emotions were to be kept private.

The family was also blessed with the usual compliment of “peculiar” people. Aunt Agnes, for instance, spent her time embroidering, and reading the Bible, and her sole link with the outside world was her sister. She was “half a bubble off plumb,” but everyone loved her. Any way, another Old Maid (which was the popular sobriquet of the day) once observed that she had no need for a man, inasmuch as she already had a dog that growled, a chimney that smoked, a parrot that swore and a cat that stayed out all night. “Why would I need a husband?”

By contrast, Aunt Belle was “tiny and energetic as a hummingbird, chirpy and happy as a wren [with a] wry sense of humor and a sharp wit.” She was popular with the kids who always “anticipated an evening spent [with her] eating candy and popcorn, telling riddles and singing hymns,” an unimaginable situation by anyone today.

Growing up in an environment where children were, of necessity, very responsible, they learned a lot from adults, who seldom taught intentionally; they mentioned and discussed things as they were, in context, and that was the lesson. Be it religion or sex, discussions were scanty or non-extant. Just follow the leader, sort of. And being sick could be, and often was, life-threatening. Challenging an adult was likewise treacherous.

She discusses an enormous variety of things: work (most of the time) to leisure activities, from gardening to milking and haying, gathering nuts and heavenly Morels to cooking (on which subject she offers quite numerous tips and tantalizing recipes as well as comments about how commercial food isn’t quite what she grew up on), literature to religion (and tent revival meetings), dangerous and cold winters to hot Iowa summers (in homes without central heat or air conditioning and horse-drawn snow plows), doing the weekly wash (by hand, without a machine, and the smells of fresh air, sun-dried clothing) to the daily trips to the outhouse.

On the last she reports a rib-splitting anecdote from Halloween, long years ago. The town curmudgeon, whose outhouse was upended the year before, observed to all that he was spending the night in his outhouse with his shotgun at the ready. The same pranksters took him at his word and rushed the structure from the rear, tipping it on to the door, thus trapping the old man inside until his morning rescue. The following year he repeated the threat. This time, however, the result was different: “How could they have known that the night before, the canny (pardon the pun) old guy had moved his outhouse three feet forward, so that when they rushed it, they would all drop into the smelly pit before they could accomplish their dirty deed?” The “old guy” was sitting in a tree nearby, the better to enjoy the show.

Of course there is much more, some of it amusing, all of it interesting, as a delightful chronicle of a life well lived, in a time long past, in a different country, with occurrences never to be repeated. And not unlike Bill Bryson’s memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a read to be savored . . . and likely reread sometime soon . . . by those of us who can actually remember similar experiences.

The young of today—and for that matter, their parents--simply cannot understand the simple joy of that kind of youth, what with their mall meetings, computer and arcade games, “face-booking” and text messaging. I, for one, don’t envy them a bit. Indeed I feel sorry for them.

Posted by respeto at October 15, 2008 2:41 PM