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2011 Reading Challenge~Book #2

Last night I crossed book #2 of my reading challenge, Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression, off my list of "gotta reads." It was different than I expected but enjoyable. Not amazing, but enjoyable. Reading it was like sitting down with an elderly relative and listening to her stories of her childhood. Mildred Armstrong Kalish reminisces about growing up on a farm during the Depression without emphasizing deprivation, which was a welcome change from other Depresseion-era books I've read (which admittedly are not many). While her young self was far from pampered, she feels blessed to have grown up when and where she did. The amount of work required from the entire family to produce the food that they would eat (very little was bought) is staggering. Yet they all willingly pitched in and never complained . . . well, seldom complained. Their thrift and ingenuity fill in any perceived lack in their lives. They seemed contented and happy with their simple, unglamorous lives.

This is not a linear narrative of Kalish's life told in story form in the manner of, say, Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series. Instead, Kalish dedicates entire chapters each to a single subject: relatives, medicine, wash day, nut-gathering, school, animal tales, leisure, gardening. They lived their lives in seamless harmony so that it was often impossible to distiguish work from fun, for those who lived it and for the readers. Life was hard but immensely satisfying, according to the author.

What impressed me most about Little Heathens was the vast store of what we more "enlightened" moderns would call "folk lore" exhibited by Kalish and her family. Doctors were something you only went to if home remedies were to no avail, and they almost always worked. Their knowledge of home nursing encompassed everything drawing out a splinter to remedying blood poisoning. Living so much by the seasons and off the land meant that they knew the natural world around them intimately, even down to the smallest dips and rises in the topography of their farms. They knew almost by instinct when to plant and when to harvest, where bees made their hives, and how to save seeds for the next year's planting. If you were to plop me or anyone else I know down in the middle of a wilderness, we wouldn't know the first thing about survival. But Kalish and her family would in the same amount of time be half-finished erecting a log cabin using makeshift tools fashioned from the natural materials around them and putting up food they've foraged from the forest for the winter in containers made of bark. We often assume that people in times before ours were ignorant, unsophisticated, and at the mercy of natural forces, but I've got a growing conviction that they were a lot smarter than we moderns want to give them credit for. It's a pity this kind of knowledge is dying along with our forefathers.

In the epilogue, Kalish tells us briefly of her life after the farm, and I discovered that she taught for a time at my college alma mater. I think I will look her up and see if I can find her mentioned in the archives somewhere.

The book gets a little earthy at times, so I wouldn't recommend just handing it over to your young-ish children (though I did and gasped a few times at what I had done!). I also detect a note of overweaning pride from time to time as Kalish tells us of her life and accomplishments. But then again, maybe she has earned the right to brag a little. Not particularly deep and difficult, the book lent itself to quick reading, and I now know that a 300-page book is about the limit of what I can handle in one week. If a slower pace and more thought are required, even that will be out of my reach, and I suspect that I will avoid certain books during this reading challenge just because I know I will not be able to keep up. Be that as it may, a whole two weeks into it I'm glad I've set this challenge before me. It's been beneficial.

NOTE: I've added a Mr. Linky in case anyone wants to share a book from the past week. If you have a book from the first week, please add it and a link to your blog (if you have one) in the comments section. Thanks!


  1. I didn't like the book, so don't remember anything earthy in it. :P

  2. I don't see how to link! :( I finished my book, too - I finished it last night, but just got around to posting today.


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