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Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression
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Product Description

I tell of a time, a place, and a way of life long gone. For many years I have had the urge to describe that treasure trove, lest it vanish forever. So, partly in response to the basic human instinct to share feelings and experiences, and partly for the sheer joy and excitement of it all, I report on my early life. It was quite a romp.

So begins Mildred Kalish¡¯s story of growing up on her grandparents¡¯ Iowa farm during the depths of the Great Depression. With her father banished from the household for mysterious transgressions, five-year-old Mildred and her family could easily have been overwhelmed by the challenge of simply trying to survive. This, however, is not a tale of suffering.

Kalish counts herself among the lucky of that era. She had caring grandparents who possessed¡ªand valiantly tried to impose¡ªall the pioneer virtues of their forebears, teachers who inspired and befriended her, and a barnyard full of animals ready to be tamed and loved. She and her siblings and their cousins from the farm across the way played as hard as they worked, running barefoot through the fields, as free and wild as they dared.

Filled with recipes and how-tos for everything from catching and skinning a rabbit to preparing homemade skin and hair beautifiers, apple cream pie, and the world¡¯s best head cheese (start by scrubbing the head of the pig until it is pink and clean), Little Heathens portrays a world of hardship and hard work tempered by simple rewards. There was the unsurpassed flavor of tender new dandelion greens harvested as soon as the snow melted; the taste of crystal clear marble-sized balls of honey robbed from a bumblebee nest; the sweet smell from the body of a lamb sleeping on sun-warmed grass; and the magical quality of oat shocking under the light of a full harvest moon.

Little Heathens offers a loving but realistic portrait of a ¡°hearty-handshake Methodist¡± family that gave its members a remarkable legacy of kinship, kindness, and remembered pleasures. Recounted in a luminous narrative filled with tenderness and humor, Kalish¡¯s memoir of her childhood shows how the right stuff can make even the bleakest of times seem like ¡°quite a romp.¡±

From the Hardcover edition.

Customer Reviews:

  • Some good moments marred by poor writing and suffocating nostalgia
    This book was a disappointment. There were some good moments but overall the whole thing felt very thin-- strangely lacking in analysis and perspective. Nearly every chapter ends with a rhetorical question whose only purpose is to demonstrate how wonderful things were "back then." For example the chapter about gardening ends this way "Do you need to be told, that with the addition of a marrow bone, Mama produced a magnificent soup. ..? Need I add that I adopted this final gathering routine right down to making a great soup in my own gardening days?" Unfortunately, by this point in the book, Kalish certainly doesn't need to tell us these things. This rhetorical strategy was exceedingly annoying throughout.

    Yes, Kalish succeeds in describing how hard everyone worked back then, and that there were advantages to living so close to the natural world (her penultimate chapter on the family pets is one of the best). But too much of the book takes on the tone of a cranky old relative spinning out only half-believable stories in a scolding tone. She often asks the reader "Can you imagine children of today doing such a task?" Of course the only possible answer Kalish can imagine is No.

    There are no other real characters in this book other than Kalish herself. Early on she writes about a charming maiden aunt named Belle, but other than Belle nobody else comes to life. Her brothers and sisters, even her mother are strangely flat--we are given no sense of them at all. Skip this one, and go rent a few episodes of the Waltons instead. You'll get more character development, better writing, and fewer lectures....more info
  • An enchanting saga of life before TV and video games
    This book is really special. Although it chronicles life on an Iowa farm during the great Depression, it speaks to how many of our grandparents lived and worked. I loved the descriptions of maiden aunts, cooking, funny sayings, descriptions of how children spent their days and how they grew to know what was important in life. I am not that old and I still think that a return to some of the values discussed such as hard work, self sufficiency, and emphasis on education, and family life would benefit us all. The book is funny, and not at all heavy handed... it comes across as being entertaining and engaging. I wish the author would write another. It is a quick read but is also a book that could be read aloud because each chapter could stand alone as a wonderful vignette....more info
  • Little Heathens
    This book was very well written and very entertaining. I could almost see my Norwegian grandmother telling this story. It made me smile and remember....more info
  • Thoroughly Enjoyable
    To be honest with you, I don't know who recommended this book to me but I am eternally grateful to whomever did, because it really was a fun read. I enjoyed it so much that I went out and bought my own copy of it so I can lend it to people. My great-great-grandma immigrated from Germany to Iowa and her daughter and grand-daughter grew up in Iowa till the Great Depression drove them to Ohio. The grand irony is while the author lived in Iowa during the Great Depression, my relatives moved back east looking for jobs.

    The stories and historical tidbits that Millie had shared about her childhood on the farm are familiar stories passed down to me from my relatives. I grew up as a town girl and so did my mom, but she would visit her cousins every summer and they lived on the farm. She would share her stories with me at the family reunions and Millie has a great way with words. Reading this book almost made me feel like I was sitting at her knees as she rocked in her rocking chair and passed on so many stories of her childhood. She has taught me a few things as well as answered so many questions I never knew that I had.

    This is a thoroughly enjoyable book and one that every family in the Midwest should own as a reminder of their ancestors' past. It is chock full of information, stories, old-folks' tales and musings. It is a great book to share with your children and grandchildren, and a piece of history that is made all the more real since it was penned by a woman who grew up on the farm. I love memoirs and this one just beats them all.

    This one comes highly recommended.

    6/29/08...more info
  • Little Iowa Heathens
    I grew up on an Iowa farm in the early 60s so I could relate
    to some of the items this author wrote about. Good book....more info
  • Full of sweet nostalgia
    This book brought back a host of memories from my own Midwestern childhood, although mine took place nearly fifty years after hers. The author's simple, unadorned voice echoes the simplicity of her upbringing, and the effect is entirely charming. She has created quite a treasure that -- were it not for thorough first-hand accounts like this -- might be lost forever....more info
  • the power of time and place
    My wife read all nine volumes of the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder (b. 1867) to our children, but if that's a stretch for your busy schedule, then Mildred Kalish's (b. 1922) best seller is a fine substitute. Kalish does for the Depression years what Wilder did for the American frontier, which is to give a nostalgic but realistic first person account of a place and time that is now lost to most people. Except for her epilogue, Kalish recounts her early childhood years on her grandparents' 240-acre farm in rural Iowa. As you would expect, her people epitomized the thrift, self-reliance, industry and independence of a family for whom "land was plentiful but money was almost non-existent." Individual chapters describe farm life, daily chores, a typical Thanksgiving that took two weeks to prepare, church life, wash day, the farm windmill, the outhouse, food (complete with many recipes), and more. As a young girl Kalish could skin a rabbit, butcher a live chicken, and fry a snapping turtle. But there were limits. She was not allowed to see her uncle wield a sledge hammer to slay a hog or use the butcher knife to severe its head.

    Kalish acknowledges that not all people loved those years like she does even today. Her sister Avis refuses to talk about it at all. Nor does she gloss over negative aspects of her upbringing. She lived with her mother's parents because when she was about five her father was banished forever from the family and community for some unspoken misdeed, and his name was, quite literally, never mentioned again in her presence. She doesn't even know when he died. Her people were stern and emotionally reserved. They could be proud and moralistic. Any and all talk about sex education was strictly forbidden. Still, Kalish describes her upbringing as a "gift" for which she remains grateful, and in her telling it's easy to see why. A dozen or so original photos enhance the reading. The New York Times named this memoir one of the "Ten Best Books of 2007." ...more info
  • Fun little heathens
    I read this from the library, then purchased a copy for my father-in-law, who lived through the depression. The writing style is straightforward with lovely language. Even though I've never lived in the midwest nor experienced depression living, it kept me interested. Wonderful anecdotes of kid sneakiness are described....more info
  • cute stories, okay writing
    i think the book could have gone through one more review period/editing, but for the most part it was full of entertaining stories. i dont want to pick it apart for its redundancies, but sometimes the author got carried away with using certain manners of speech, puns, etc. over and over again. also, there was a random chapter full of recipes that didnt seem to fit in with the rest of the narratives.

    i dont know if this book would make my top 10 list for the year, but maybe the new york times looks for qualities that i dont appreciate as much....more info
  • My highest recommendation --ever!
    Millie is a gem. She has an amazing ability to recall and write about the details of her early life that most of us have long forgotten. But when you read her words and you happened to have some farm experience in your past, it all comes back -- wow, what a trip.

    Thank you Millie for taking the time and effort to share your stories.
    I'm going to pick this book for our book club and bake one of your pies for dessert.

    What a delicious book! Certainly one my top ten ever.


    ...more info
  • Farm History With A Little More Heart and Humor Than Usual
    Mildred Armstrong Kalish's book "Little Heathens" is one of the finest recollections of farm history I've read. And I'm drawn to books of this sort. She has not only captured the details of that Depression-Era life, but has done so warmly and playfully. Sure it was hard and there was tragedy. That is in the book, but not at the expense of the fun and little joys her family and friends also experienced. That balance is honest and commendable. Too many who write books of this sort are determined to sound a single tone, be it bleak or sugary.

    It's also helpful to have farm history recalled by someone who experienced it entirely. While men have written many fine accounts, their's often lack an appreciation of what went on in the house. This book includes farm history barn-to-kitchen.

    Small things keep this from being perfect. (Petty complaints, I'll admit.) First, I would have preferred the recipes and remedies be tucked in a separate section of the book. They seem to disrupt the flow. Second, the grandparents do not come across as being so cold and austere as we're first lead to believe. Finally, the epilogue misfires just a little. The self-doubt seemed out-of-place for a woman who would one day write this fine book....more info
  • I grew up in Iowa...
    Even though I'm young enough to be the author's granddaughter, I remember so much of what she writes about --- picking wild plums, grapes, raspberries, elderberries and mulberries and making preserves. Harvesting black walnuts before the squirrels could get them all. Searching out morels before the deer ate them. As I read this book I relived my childhood growing up in a small town in Iowa. My grandparents lived very much like the author and they taught us very similar lessons. Wonderful read! ...more info
  • A generation younger
    Besides being an enjoyable read, this is a very important ethnographic work documenting a piece of an era in U.S. history that left its mark not only on those who lived it, but on the generations that followed. I grew up on a farm in Southwestern Wisconsin in the 40s and 50s, a skip, hop and jump from the location of the communities described in this book. My parents experiences as children of the Depression carried over to the upbringing of the next (my) genration, as well. While reading, my mental reference was the old green shingled farm house where my grandparents lived just across the border in northern Illinois. It was equally as cold in winter as the ones described in this book. There was a big old iron cook stove in the kitchen; my Grandma made the best bread I've ever tasted and had the most diverse garden I've ever known. So many things written about in this book brought back wonderful and painful memories of growing up in the upper Midwest. I am going to keep this book on my cookbook shelves so, when the mood strikes, I might try to make homemade marshmallows! Thank you Mildred Armstrong Kalish, not only for the recipes, but for an important ethnographic and historical, yet thoroughly entertaining work. ...more info
  • rollicking tale of high times during hard days
    Mildred Armstrong Kalish has provided readers with a rare treat in this rollicking memoir of growing up in rural Iowa during the Depression years.

    Meticulously written, filled with the sights, sounds, and smells of a vanished way of life, this book will hold you captive from the first page to the last. Armstrong's book is filled with hardy characters, skillful and canny, equal to the sometimes harrowing situations they faced.

    I wouldn't describe this as a "feel-good" memoir, as Kalish writes as honestly and precisely about the difficulties and the heartbreaks, as she does about the many delights. This is a window into the heartland of many decades past, as well as a window into human hearts of any age. It deserves the highest rating....more info
  • Taciturn Midwestern Narrative
    I find her stories spot on. I am a bit younger and grew up on a farm in Illinois, but the anecdotes are similar. She did jog my memory about similar things that happened to me. I think she did a good job of capturing the main characters in her life. How about those grandparents? A happy day was when you could recycle old clothing three times. My only complaint was the writing. I expected much more since she had been a teacher of writing. I just found her style so flat and droning. She had some funny stories, but they just weren't told with much verve. ...more info
  • Home remedies and high jinks
    I loved this book my Mom grew up on a farm and told similar stories.The home remedies are great and creative sometimes. The book makes me yearn for simpler times when fun could be had by tipping over outhouses....more info
  • Enjoyed every word.
    To me this well written book was so enjoyable from beginning to the end; it is the way it was and I almost found myself envying this family. It took me back to basics and a time I remembered so well and identified with their way of life....more info
  • Very Special Book
    I had a feeling when I looked over the cover and liner notes of "Little Heathens" that I was in for a special treat. Luckily, my instinct was right. I am so glad I read this book. My wife and son read it right after me and also enjoyed it.

    The book has the feel of a beloved relative talking about the "old days", except that the story is told with the literary sure hand of a retired English professor. Not only is Mildred Kalish's style wonderfully readable, I found her choices of subjects to be interesting.

    I did sort of skim over the recipes in the book, but there was one that caught my eye: the "apple cream pie". My wife baked it the other night, and it is pretty darn good. Beware though: there are a lot of apples in it!

    I think the value in this book are the lessons it teaches, and how it teaches those lessons without being preachy or judgemental about the current state of society. The values are some we could use more of today: self-reliance, respect for our family, the satisfaction of hard work, and bearing our trials with dignity. Sadly, when Ms. Kalish's generation have all passed away, these values are in danger of becoming some sort of antiquated curiosity. This book can also be therapeutic, allowing us to put the annoyances and challenges of life today in proper perspective. Maybe it's not so bad after all that the line at Starbuck's is long. Maybe our kids can learn that there are other ways to have fun than video games and text messaging. Maybe we can all just slow down a little, and be happy with what we have.

    The most telling passage is at the very end. She could have complained about the hard times, the poverty, and the back-breaking farm work. Instead, she is grateful. A lesson for us all.

    Highly recommended....more info
  • Wonderful book, fun reading
    I loved this book. The account of life on an Iowa farm in the depression 1930s was both stunning and compelling. It's a way of life unknown to so many people in our country today, yet not far in the past at all. I know only vestiges of it, such as seeing my mother use a wringer washing machine, but mostly from hearing my parents tell about the way they grew up. While reading it, I was torn between wishing I could go back and live in that time and place, and being so very glad I can go to a supermarket and get excellent chicken without having to behead, gut, and singe the feathers off, then cut it all up myself! But the thread running through is the learning of self-sufficiency, pulling together, rising above, the building of good character, all of which is a huge help to one through life's hills and valleys. It's well worth going back to have a look at this way of life and what we've gained and lost....more info
  • sweet but not cloying
    I didn't want to put this lovely book down and was bummed when it ended. Perhaps if Kalish had had to live year-round with her grandparents, it would have been spirit-crushing -- and it would have been a different story. But having summer and fall off each year apparently gave her enough distance to develop real love and respect for them. What I found most moving: as repressive and difficult as Kalish's childhood was, she never whines. Instead we meet a warm and thoughtful human being. ...more info
  • And what about the depression?
    This book was very disappointing. I had read reviews that lauded its descriptions of the Great Depression. Instead, it was a tedious recounting of all the ways life was different then than now. ("We put the wash in the bucket...Then we brought a larger bucket in from the barn. Then we turned the door knob...Then the Big Kids filled the large bucket with hot water...).

    We can appreciate that life was different 70+ years ago, as it will be different 70 years from today. But I wanted to know what it felt like when no one had money, when a great war was approaching, when people were leaving their homes for greener pastures.

    I'll have to find a different book....more info
  • Charm and hard living in Iowa

    Mildred Armstrong Kalish describes herself on her excellent website:

    "I was born on St. Patrick's Day in 1922, on a farm near Garrison, Iowa, in Benton County. My growing-up was influenced by the Great Depression and by the self-reliance and work ethic of my mother's parents -- themselves descendants of pioneers who never quite made it into the 20th Century. Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression details the remarkable challenges and the inestimable rewards of living a rural life where children were expected to accept responsibilities beyond the ordinary."

    I was raised, as Ms. Kalish was, "in an environment where everyone knew everyone else." It endowed her with "a sense of security, a sense of belonging in the world." That feeling also rings totally true to me. I liked Ms. Kalish immensely, and I'm sure you would too.

    Robert C. Ross 2008...more info
  • A Time Capsule of Place and Time
    A wonderful remembrance of living on a farm during the depression. Although told from a somewhat detached viewpoint, the narrative remains interesting and informative. The recipes made my mouth water. Gotta try the shortcake. ...more info
  • greatbook
    This is a wonderful book. The author does a great job of being sincere without being too sentimental. I highly recommend it.
    In addition, the book was delivered in great condition and in a timely manner. ...more info
  • Heart Warming
    I'm the daughter of parents who grew up during the depression so many of these stories are familiar. My parents also read the book and were equally pleased with the stories. It doesn't quite delve into how difficult it was however, and stays on the light reading side. Great gift for anyone who's been to the midwest, grew up in that era, or just someone who appreciates the simpler times....more info
  • Awesome history lesson
    Although of a different generation I have parents who lived through the depression, and not far from Garrison. This book echoes many of the stories I've heard in my family. It should remind us all how wasteful we are now and be a guide on how to be less so. Thank you Mrs. Kalish for this delightful history lesson....more info
  • Nostalgic story
    Although I didn't grow up in Iowa, I was born during the Depression years and grew up on a quasi farm; and many of the stories told here brought back some very poignant memories for me. Like the author, we were pretty poor in material things but very wealthy in things that matter - love, loyalty, appreciation for things we did have and the necessity for making our own fun instead of relying on expensive toys, dedication to family, etc. This book, while somewhat simple and easy to read, is a wonderful story and provides lessons of real value, reminding us that money and material do not translate into happiness; but, rather, those things come from within and are much of our own making!...more info