“Ralph Waldo Emerson could have learned a thing or two about self reliance from my great-great-grandparents,” asserts Mildred Armstrong Kalish near the beginning of her book Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm in the Great Depression. I knew I would love this book when I read those lines, and I was not disappointed. This book is a love song for childhood in general and for a certain kind of youth almost extinct in American now–a childhood without television, videogames, play dates, nursery schools, organized sports, allowance, sex education, or fast food. If it were just about hard times, it would have been depressing or boring. The high spirits that flow through this book, however, also infect the reader.
The title of the book comes from Mildred’s grandmother who once saw her daughter’s brood cavorting naked on the lawn, washing down the stubbles from a day in the hay fields with water from a hose.
“‘A body’d think you had had no upbringing,'” she proclaimed. “‘They’d think that you’d been peed on a stump and hatched by the sun.'”
When even the verbal lashings a child receives are this colorful, no time can be hard enough to repress high spirits. Combined with a decent literary education from aphorisms, hymns, memorized poetry, books, and classroom, a child could grow up to join the Coast Guard in WWII, use the GI Bill to go to college, become a college professor, mother, grandmother, and write a memoir that was reviewed by the hottest memoir writer of the moment–Elizabeth Gilbert–right there on the front cover of the book review section of The New York Times, July 1, 2007. That’s what happened to Mildred.
Mildred Armstrong grew up without knowing her own father, who apparently was banished for some impropriety early in her childhood. Elizabeth Gilbert points out that a lot of memoirists would have made this story the center, perhaps even painting themselves as victims. But Mildred chooses what to forget and what to remember, discarding the negative in favor of gratitude for the positive. She had a loving mother who allowed lots of freedom as well as strict (and loving) grandparents who offered structure and an uncommon measure of common sense. She had siblings, teachers, and a maiden aunt who challenged her and believed in her. And she must have had (and has!) an incredible memory and organizing system for her remembered past.
My own childhood has many things in common with Kalish’s, and my mother, who is just a few years younger than Mildred, has told me stories from her own girlhood in the Depression that resonate even better with these. The descriptions of food, church, family, pranks, and creative, frugal celebrations all hit home, but here is my very favorite, the description of going down the pasture to fetch the cows:
“You can’t commune with Mother Earth with shoes on your feet. I follow the deeply rutted, dusty path worn by the cows down to the end of the narrow lane where I first encounter the tender, cool grasses of the pasture. A dozen locust trees adorned with their clusters of ivory-colored blossoms are all abuzz with a congregation of honey and bumblebees. The rich sweet fragrance is almost overwhelming.”
Kalish follows Wordsworth’s maxim about poetry and recollects emotion in tranquility here. She first lived her experience, then recognized her experience in the words of poets and authors, and now condenses both for us in word pictures that stir the soul.
I thought of this book when Barack Obama’s primary victory in Iowa launched him as a serious contender for the presidency in the face of Hillary Clinton’s formidable advantages at the time. Those hearty midwesterners were seeing past the color of Barack Obama’s skin to the content of his character–a character shaped by his midwestern grandparents about the same age as Mildred Kalish.
I thought of this book again during the last month as stock prices tumbled and the whole globe trembled with fear of a deep, world-wide Depression. If we are, indeed, headed for such a time, we could find a lot of hope by reading how material poverty produced in Mildred Armstrong Kalish and her “greatest” generation the kind of values, skills, and yes–high spirits–that we always need and may need now more than ever.
Check out the book from your local library. Frugal Mildred won’t mind.