Mildred Armstrong Kalish, Little Heathens; Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression (New York: Bantam Dell, 2007), 292pp.
My wife read all nine volumes of the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder (b. 1867) to our children, but if that's a stretch for your busy schedule, then Mildred Kalish's (b. 1922) best seller is a fine substitute. Kalish does for the Depression years what Wilder did for the American frontier, which is to give a nostalgic but realistic first person account of a place and time that is now lost to most people. Except for her epilogue, Kalish recounts her early childhood years on her grandparents' 240-acre farm in rural Iowa. As you would expect, her people epitomized the thrift, self-reliance, industry and independence of a family for whom "land was plentiful but money was almost non-existent." Individual chapters describe farm life, daily chores, a typical Thanksgiving that took two weeks to prepare, church life, wash day, the farm windmill, the outhouse, food (complete with many recipes), and more. As a young girl Kalish could skin a rabbit, butcher a live chicken, and fry a snapping turtle. But there were limits. She was not allowed to see her uncle wield a sledge hammer to slay a hog or use the butcher knife to severe its head.
Kalish acknowledges that not all people loved those years like she does even today. Her sister Avis refuses to talk about it at all. Nor does she gloss over negative aspects of her upbringing. She lived with her mother's parents because when she was about five her father was banished forever from the family and community for some unspoken misdeed, and his name was, quite literally, never mentioned again in her presence. She doesn't even know when he died. Her people were stern and emotionally reserved. They could be proud and moralistic. Any and all talk about sex education was strictly forbidden. Still, Kalish describes her upbringing as a "gift" for which she remains grateful, and in her telling it's easy to see why. A dozen or so original photos enhance the reading. The New York Times named this memoir one of the "Ten Best Books of 2007."