Friday, December 12, 2008

Book Report/Little Heathens

Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression
by Mildred Armstrong Kalish
read by Ruth Ann Phimister
nonfiction, 2007
finished, 11/20/08

This book has been on the edge of my consciousness for a while now. I'd see it on the library shelf or on the internet, but I was put off by the title. Actually, I still am. As far as I can recollect, it was just used once or twice in the book. I believe it is a grandmother who used to call the kids by this epithet. I don't know. Maybe it's an old-fashioned way of saying, you little devils, which I don't like either. I'm always uncomfortable when a parent calls their children anything disparaging, particularly in the hearing of those children. Parents may think they are being cute, but names stay in a child's head, as this one must have in the author's.

Other than my own particular problem with the title, I loved everything about this book. I listened to a tremendous reading by Ruth Ann Phimister, who also narrates the Dearest Dorothy books. She is a young woman with the voice of an old one, much like Bailey White. It felt to me as if the author, who is in her eighties now, was telling me stories of her growing up years in Iowa during the Depression. And the stories she told! What I loved the most were the details of everyday life. She tells us about washdays, and cooking (with great recipes!), and haying. Her yearly life was split between living on the farm in the country with her mother during the warmer months, and living in town with her mother and her father's parents for the winter months so she could get to school. I recall my mother talking about living in town and working during part of the school year, probably for the same reason. Actually, I felt that other than locale, this story was much like the life my grammy and grampy lived on their farm, bringing up ten children, whose births spanned almost 25 years! Can you imagine? My aunt Susie, whom I've mentioned here a couple times, said no thank you to marriage and children. As the oldest girl, she had taken care of enough babies to last her a lifetime.

This split between mother and grandparents was more than geographical. Kalish' mother was quite a free spirit. There wasn't a particular order to their days; they ate when and where and what they wanted.

Mama almost never made an attempt to serve a balanced meal. If she had just taken bread from the oven around the middle of the day, our noon meal would consist of freshly made bread, homemade butter, whole plum jam, and a huge pitcher of milk. If, in the garden, she noticed that the sweet corn was ready, we had nothing but buttered sweet corn for supper.

Sounds perfect to me! And in fact, we eat much the same way ourselves.

Home with the grandparents was almost completely opposite. The grandfather, who got up first in the morning, decided what breakfast would be. If he wanted oatmeal, they'd all eat oatmeal. They all had to go to bed at the same time.

The book should be kept in some library's archives as a detailed description of how things were done in those days: how to cook on a woodstove, home remedies, harvesting nuts.

The author is cheery and her story is uplifting and fun, even with all the troubles of those days. Kids were a real part of the family work. They contributed and knew they were important to the running of the farm. I think this is something that all children want - to know they are important and necessary in the life of a family. There are lessons galore in the book, but they aren't expressed in a didactic or preachy manner. Mildred just tells her story, and we listen as children at her feet, learning without being aware we are doing so. This is such an important book for all ages. Those who lived through these days will enjoy reminiscing and those who can't imagine such a life will learn how it was lived. I loved it, and bought three copies as gifts. One was for Tom's birthday because he was so interested when I kept telling him things. I know he'll love it, too.


  1. HI Nan
    I read this book, as I grew up in Iowa, from 1951-1969.
    And when I tell my kids stories of my one room schoolhouse days they can't believe it was in the 50's and 60's. Quite some stories I have too.
    I am sorry I didn't weigh in on your question about answering comments in the original post or the authors post blogs.
    I tend to answer on the person's blog, although it seems comments swayed to answering on our own.
    Being newer to blogging than most, I somehow got on to doing it this way, but not sure why.

  2. Oh, Mim, thanks for telling me all that. In the book there's a copy of her contract when she began teaching. Pretty stringent rules, weren't they?! In terms of comments, it seems that both ways work just fine.

  3. Sounds as book my mother will like - I found it on the web and will order it for her. I'd never heard about this book until I read what you had written - reading blogs is so educational!

  4. Oh, I've heard such good things about this book! It's done quite well in the store, too. I'll have to give it a read in the coming year. It sounds like one I'd really enjoy. Great book report, Nan!

  5. I'm so tickled, em! I feel quite sure she (and maybe you) will love it. Lots of great info, presented in a cheerful, accessible manner. She's a very good writer.
    Les, thanks. I really loved the book, and I think you will, too.

  6. Nan,
    I read this book a few months ago and absolutely loved it. Realizing that the author is quite old, I emailed her to let her know what a treasure her book is, and I mean that literally, and received an immediate reply! I was quite shocked since I had never in my life written an author before.

    Regarding the term "Little Heathens": I don't know if it's a Midwest thing but this phrase was bandied about quite a bit when I was a kid, too (in the 60s). We were not called this to our faces (usually) but it was used in a more general sense, ie, "What are those little heathens up to now?" etc etc. Maybe it's all interconnected with the large amount of Calvinists in our area (and in Iowa), total depravity and all that. But it was said in mostly a loving, kids-will-do-the-darndest-thing tone of voice.

  7. Heathen originally was a phrase for people from the country (the heath). I guess it was intended by city people in the same way rube was. I don't know when the religious overtone came.

  8. Lee, thank you so much for stopping in and telling me. That's great!

  9. Nan, I loved the book! The title didn't bother me as much as the grandma calling them spawn. That seemed to go a little too far.

    Thanks for sharing this book report and I'm so sorry I missed the original post. I might have read it sooner! Hubby is enjoying it now and may try a recipe or two! ;D

  10. Hi Nan,
    I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It confirmed what I had read in More Work for Mother that putting the food on the table used to be the responsibility of the whole family--not just mother. But even without that confirmation, this was a thoroughly enjoyable book. So glad you read it too.

  11. Linda, It so pleases me that you came to this older post and took the time to leave me a note. Thank you! I think the whole family was happier when they each had a part to play in the daily life.


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