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Memoir Nonfiction Review

“Little Heathens” by Mildred A. Kalish

Kalish, Mildred Armstrong. Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression 
Bantam Books, 2007

Some time around 1930, when the author was “little more than five years old” (p. 6), she, her mother, her baby sister, and her two brothers went to live with her mother’s parents in the town of Garrison, Iowa. The children’s father had committed some unnamed infraction against their mother and was consequently banished from the family and never spoken of again.

When Millie and family arrived, their grandparents had retired from farming and were living in a house in town. But they still owned several outlying farms, and Millie’s family was given one to live on and work, across the road from another farm occupied by an aunt and uncle and their children. Millie’s family spent summers on the farm, then attended the rural school through December, when winter shut down the farm. They then moved into the grandparents’ house in town and attended the town school from January until school ended in May.

Grandma and Grandpa Urmy were “two very strict and stern individuals. For us children, building character, developing a sense of responsibility, and above all, improving one’s mind would become the essential focus of our lives” (p 6). In contrast to the regimented and regulated life in their grandparents’ house in town, life on the farm was much more easygoing. Their mother allowed them to roam freely as long as they did their chores—and they had lots of chores—and they spent much time exploring with their cousins.

In chapters about topics such as chores, school, cooking, and holidays, Kalish describes how she learned the lessons of pioneer thrift, proper work ethic, and acceptable behavior that allowed her family to thrive during the difficult times of the Great Depression.

In looking back, I realize that I have had the good fortune to have absorbed the events that transpired during my childhood years into my very being, as if no boundary exists between then and now, as if the past had not really passed… . I tell of a time, a place, and a way of life long gone, nearly forgotten by the world, but still indelible in my memory. It is my hope to resurrect them, to make them live again. (p. 7)

In this book Kalish has successfully resurrected her childhood experiences and made them live again. There are no surprises or revelations in this book, but it contributes much to future generations’ knowledge of what everyday life was like at one particular point in history.

© 2014 by Mary Daniels Brown