Mar 202010

A lady in her eighties, a retired English professor, writes a memoir of her depression childhood on an Iowa farm and reminds us how much our world has changed. Only a couple generations ago almost everyone grew up on family farms where large extended families worked together raising animals and food. Those my age, a generation younger than author Mildred Armstrong Kalish, were exposed to farm life because pockets of the milieu described in Little Heathens survived into the fifties. Likewise, the psychological overlay lasted as well. Consider this:

“One thing we children all understood: The adults were the ones who made the decisions and the generation gap was not to be breached. Childhood and early adolescence were looked on as a kind of unmentionable affliction, somewhat like the huge goiter that tilted Great-aunt Maggie’s chin way up in the air; it was there for all to see, but no one ever commented on it. The desired condition was to be any adult. We also understood that we couldn’t do or have anything that cost money. Nor could we ever suggest to the old folks that we were bored or didn’t have anything to occupy ourselves, for in no time they would have had restacking the woodpile, scrubbing the porches, or picking up fallen apples…”

One of the most frequently heard sayings of my youth was “Children should be seen but not heard.” My dad was raised on a depression era farm in Virginia, my mom in a log cabin in Montana. Continuous work was their way of life. Milk, plant, weed, harvest, haul wood, pump water and do it all over again.

Mildred Kalish relishes her memories, which are quite detailed, and writes a page turner of a book, with little gems in nearly every paragraph. One wonders if the time will come soon when we will all have to regain the skills and knowledge that were once second nature to all rural Americans: using a spider web to dress a wound, ear wax to stem a bee sting, gleaning wild food, milking a cow, capturing a bee swarm or stealing its honey, plucking a chicken, saving tomato seeds, and on and on.

Before WWII, folks didn’t routinely go to doctors. There were home remedies that worked. There were no supermarkets. Everyone had a large garden. Entertainment was found with people and social events, with pets, in the fields and woods. Schools were very local. The world was a smaller place when you couldn’t jump on a jet for Mexico or decide to drive a thousand miles on a whim. We might find the world getting smaller once again. We need to get mentally and physically prepared for that possibility.

Reading Little Heathens will help you get ready for what will come, remind you of what the world was once like or make you feel regret for what we’ve lost.

You can read the first chapter on Ms Kalish’s website here.


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