by Mildred Armstrong Kalish
There are a variety of tales and anecdotes about life during the Great Depression, yet many who survived don’t want to talk about it. The experiences of those in the cities were quite different from those living in the country. Regardless of location, however, all but the very wealthy suffered and their lives and perspectives were formed or altered by their experiences.
In Little Heathens, Mildred Armstrong Kalish shares what life was like for herself and her extended family. It is somewhat difficult to distinguish between the normal trials of endless farm work and the efforts needed to reuse and repurpose items because of deprivation of money and resources. “Thrown away” was a foreign concept during this time and thrift was the champion of the day. Kalish shares the many saving and “make-do” tricks that were common during the Depression and some that were uncommon. Many of those have fallen out of use, but are still handy to know and good examples of the resourcefulness of our predecessors.
Kalish lays her memories out forthrightly, not concealing or varnishing the stories. Many are humorous and several are gasp-worth. Children worked alongside adults learning by example and experience. Farm life required the whole family to pitch in. Chores were divided by age and gender, but not strictly. For example, Monday Wash Day was a very physical, all-day task for which preparations began on Sunday night. Children and adults wore the same set of clothes all week, and everyone participated in wash day. The need for everyone to work together is apparent in the book over and over again.
Kalish addresses the many aspects of life at that time as seen through the eyes of a child who was an active participant. She has an incredible memory for detail right down to how to catch, kill, and prepare a snapping turtle for consumption. She also discusses the social aspects of community inside and outside the family unit. Her life was unique in that she lived in town during the winter and on a farm during the growing season because of her family situation. Her life was very different in each place, but the expectations of a good work ethic and attitude never changed.
The author viewed the hardships of her childhood as instrumental in her many achievements later in life. From success as a “hired girl” to working her way through college to her happy marriage and career as a professor, Kalish gives credit to her family, especially her mother: “Mama’s ability to meet challenges head-on and with a positive attitude created in us kids a sense of confidence that there was a way to solve every problem—just find it.” Although her life was hard, it was not unhappy and she prizes the memories of her past. I enjoyed her writing style, learned from the information she shared, and relived some of my past as I have memories of my Depression-era parents handing down wise sayings and thrifty values. Well done, Mildred Armstrong Kalish!
Publication: May 29, 2007—Random House (Bantam)
Mama, Aunt Hazel, Uncle Ernest, Grandma, and Grandpa had a real gift for integrating us children into farm life. Working alongside us, they taught us how to perform the chores and execute the obligations that make a family and a farm work.
An Old Maid (that’s what we called unmarried women in those days) was asked why she didn’t try to find a husband. Her reply was, “I have a dog that growls, a chimney that smokes, a parrot that swears, and a cat that stays out all night. Why do I need a husband?”
After our chores and household duties were done we were given “permission” to read. In other words, our elders positioned reading as a privilege—a much sought-after prize, granted only to those goodhardworkers who earned it. How clever of them.
She kept all of her needles stuck into a red felt pincushion which she had owned since just before God.