Lest you think that I only read Victorian Fiction or classic, great works of literature, I thought I’d mix things up this week and review a charming little memoir that my library book group read this month.
The book’s full title is Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression, and I admit, it wouldn’t be a book I’d choose if left to my own devices. But one of the things I love about being part of book groups, especially community ones, is that they stretch you and force you to broaden your reading horizons. Certainly, sometimes I read books that I can’t stand, but I often find new authors and perspectives that I find valuable and rewarding.
The author, Mildred Armstrong Kalish, grew up in a small, hard working Iowa farm during the Great Depression. She lived with her mother and grandparents and near her cousins and other members of her extended family, who also farmed in the area.
Although the book is technically a memoir, it reads more like a topically arranged account of one family’s very typical Midwest depression lifestyle. The chapters include “Religious Influences, Medicine, Farm Food, Wash Day, Outhouses, Gardening, and other mainstays of the Iowa life. Her prose style is very informal and approachable, straightforward and relatable. She’s everyone’s grandma, relating the simple conditions and facts of life from her upbringing.
The pictures that I’ve included are from some items one of the women in my book group brought along for “show and tell” (Thanks Carol!). Her husband was born and raised in Iowa, and his family lived on a farm during the depression. This particular one was of special interest to me because it was the hand-held school bell from the local one-room school house.
As we enter into our own economic downturn, which some have even dared to call a “depression,” I compare our relative abundance to the limited resources available to the families in the book, and I realize how vastly different our current situation is from where our country was in the 1930s. These farmers lived off their land, and store bought goods were a rare luxury. You think you need to cut back these days? Kalish lists what few items they purchased:”The only things my grandparents spent money on were tea, coffee, sugar, salt, white flour, cloth and kerosene.” It’s true that the resourceful farmers produced some of the products that we city folk would be hard pressed to make on our own, such as butter and soap. However, I can’t imagine going a week with such a short shopping list, let alone years, to feed a large family.
I never expected this little book to convict me of anything. Sure, my daily Bible reading, that should convict me plenty, but a little memoir about the Great Depression? But I can’t believe how many reproaches I felt about the wasteful way I live my life. These people knew how to make the most of their resources. They knew to scoop your finger inside an egg shell to scrape out all the egg. So, yes, that might seem minor, but I started doing that and realized how much egg I had been throwing away. And clothing always got mended, passed down, and recycled in very creative ways. Nothing was wasted. I’m not saying that I need to become a pack rat, but I also could be a better steward of my money and possessions. After all, they are not actually MY money and MY possessions. It all belongs to God, and he’s merely trusting me to manage them. (Pictured here is a flour sack that has been carefully embroidered to be a table cloth.)
I have to say that the home remedies did disturb me a little bit. I understand that without a doctor available and no money to pay a doctor, even if there was one, you relied on your own know-how to fix bumps and bruises. But these people took it many steps further and came up with some very elaborate remedies. I’m sure that some of them work fine and are safe, but a few of them seemed highly suspect. Dr. Dan certainly didn’t approve of a couple that I read to him. Actually, it was the look of horror on his face that told me he wouldn’t be incorporating those techniques into his medical practice.
No, I’m not saying we all need to move out onto a farm, cut our electricity, and live off the land. But I do think it’s wise to look back to those who did it and the lessons they learned in the process. And maybe, we could all use a little bit of that self-reliance and hard work ethic that those farmers embraced.