Friday, March 18, 2011

A Time, A Place, and a Way of Life Long Gone...

“Retrospection can be illuminating, it can be numbing, it can be sobering; it can be fruitful, it can gladden my heart, and it can drown me in despair. But looking back on my early days on our farm in Iowa, I find that I take enormous satisfaction in my memories of the past, and my reflections on how that time, so rich, so satisfying, so fulfilling, yet so undeniably challenging, affected me.” -Mildred Armstrong Kalish

“Little Heathens” took me by surprise (of the pleasant sort). It was our Bookgroup selection on Tuesday night and I did not expect to like it as much as I did.

Memoirs are a popular literary genre but lately I’ve noticed abundant use of contemporary writers to use traumas in their past to explain or justify their sordid lives. Emotional tales of abuse, neglect, addiction, etc. has almost become a gimmick to rationalize bad behavior, lack of character, et al.

Mildred Kalish, the author of “Little Heathens,” is the opposite extreme. Her book is a detailed account of growing up during the Great Depression on a farm in Garrison, Iowa. While Kalish is completely pragmatic about the difficulties, her optimistic nature depicts a childhood that she endearingly describes as “quite a romp.”

Let’s face it, those 1930’s depression years were tough on everyone and on top of the widespread economic woes, Kalish’s father was exiled from the family by her maternal grandfather for reasons only alluded to (bankruptcy, bootlegging and jail time) and the family never spoke of him again.

Instead of dwelling on the pain of not having a father figure in the home, Kalish gives an incredibly rich look of her family’s experiences and how these shaped who she became. Kalish is a great writer and her exacting memory makes for a great narrative. The book was completely delightful; I give it a hearty endorsement!

“Isn’t it perfectly obvious to all that those early childhood experiences, under those special conditions with those particular relatives on that Iowa farm, prepared me for the modestly successful, hugely satisfying, truly blessed life that has been my lot? I shall always be grateful.” -Mildred Armstrong Kalish