Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Big House on the Prairie


Little Heathens:Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression
by Mildred Armstrong Kalish

If, as a child, you were captivated by the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder, my bet is that you will enjoy Little Heathens. It is a memoir of a young girl who grew up on an Iowa farm in a large, single mother family. The family was cash poor, land rich, and phenomenally wealthy in terms of resourcefulness, humor, and the community of extended family. When I was a kid, I loved the descriptions in Laura Ingalls Wilder's books about "how to do stuff." Kalish's book is equally full of homegrown wisdom and resourceful solutions to everyday problems.

Kalish's childhood was characterized by hard work, but she writes with no self-pity. Instead, she has fond memories of the way the kids made their own fun and even made work fun. Without being overly preachy, she conveys a security and sense of well- being that she developed on the farm and that have obviously sustained her well into her old age. There is a little bit of the "kids today don't know what real work is" stuff, but she really keeps that to a minimum. Mostly she just makes observations about how different those times were and how some values like thrift, resourcefulness, and commitment are worth hanging onto.

Even though her memories are mostly happy ones, Kalish does not idealize her childhood or adolescence. She acknowledges that her mother was fairly closed, not affectionate or tender. Children were expected to do as they were told and not to question why or to explore things on their own. She sometimes felt isolated, even in the midst of a large and boisterous family. One thing that really came home to me was the sheer amount of work it took to prepare hearty meals for a large family three times a day. There was no running to the Safeway for a roasted chicken or pre-made potato salad. The women of the family spent most of their time just keeping everyone fed and keeping the kitchen ready to start the next meal. It sounds exhausting to me, and I'm someone who likes to cook.

Little Heathens is a fun read - lots of good information but also a great deal of humor and wisdom. It's like sitting down with your favorite grandmother and hearing her stories of the way things were. I can remember hearing similar stories from my grandmother on long car trips. This depression generation (sometimes called "The Greatest Generation") is a valuable resource, and they will all be gone before too much more time goes by. Thank goodness that some people have preserved their memories for us to enjoy again and again.

Reverent Reader

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