February 14, 2010

Little Heathens

Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression by Mildred Armstrong Kalish
Nonfiction - Memoir
2007 Bantam Books
Finished on 2/8/10
Rating: 2/5 (Fair)

Publisher's Blurb:

"I tell of a time, a place, and a way of life long gone but still indelible in my memory. 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. This, however, is not a tale of suffering but the story of a childhood that "built character, fed the intellect, and stirred the imagination."

Filled with stories of a family that gave its members a remarkable legacy of kinship, kindness, and remembered pleasures, and brimming 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, Little Heathens portrays a world of hard work tempered by simple rewards--and shows how the right stuff can make even the bleakest of times seem like "quite a romp."

In the above quote, Kalish notes that she will "report on" her early life and that's exactly how this book read: like a report. Or a laundry list. It began with a humorous anecdote or two, but quickly dissolved into a straightforward and dull recounting of an unremarkable childhood, simply (or perhaps simplistically) written and not very enticing.

A much-admired accomplishment in those days was the ability to make smooth starch. Here is how you made and used it. First of all, you prepared a paste...

Family members are mentioned, yet remain flat. Memories are recalled, yet the stories lack emotion and drama. Or introspection. I was disappointed in this memoir and will be curious to see what the members of my book club members have to say about it. I know several tried to get interested in the book, but gave up early on, so it may not be the best of discussions. The New York Times Book Review claims this was one of the 10 best books of the year. Hmmm... I thought it was rather dull and pedestrian. Based on the reviews on Amazon, reactions to this book are mixed. I wonder if those who lived through the Depression or grew up in Iowa had a more positive reading experience with Little Heathens. If it hadn't been a book club selection, I would've quit after the first 50 pages.

This book is for my three families—

To my birth family, who share the everlasting bonds of kinship.

To my husband's warm and loving family, who welcomed me to their bosom in total acceptance from the day I walked into their lives over sixty-two years ago.

And finally, to my immediate family, who give my life meaning.

Perhaps the above dedication says it all. This is really a story that will be appreciated and cherished by Kalish's family members. It needed more polish and editing to create an interesting read for the general public. My mom has written her memoirs and while I loved reading every single page, I wonder how many strangers would have enjoyed her stories. They mean something to me simply because I know the people of whom she speaks and have heard some of the stories during my own childhood. I found Mom's memoirs compelling and thought them well-written. But would a stranger take the same pleasure in her reminiscings?

Maybe I'm being too critical, but the tone of the memoir was also annoying. There's a bit of haughtiness, or a holier-than-thou attitude, throughout Kalish's stories.

Susannah and Jacob helped establish two churches; broke sod three times in their lives, plowing virgin soil to prepare it for raising crops; and were almost totally self-sufficient. Like other pioneers, they did their own doctoring from home remedies. They raised, butchered, canned, and cured their own cows, hogs, and chickens. They hunted squirrels, rabbits, pheasants, and quail right there in Yankee Grove. They tanned their own leather in a hollowed-out hickory log. For the most part, they mended their harnesses for their horses and repaired their own shoes.

They made their own bread and sometimes ground their own flour of oats and wheat; they ground the corn to feed to their chickens and to make cornmeal mush for themselves. They made their own shirts, knitted their own sweaters, scarves, and socks, and sewed their own wool quilts. Their industry and independence were nothing short of astonishing. Ralph Waldo Emerson could have learned a thing or two about self-reliance from my great-great-grandparents.


These days, growing up in households where both parents work, children have a limited chance to learn how to prepare simple foods. Let's remedy that. Fresh fried potatoes are delicious; here's how to make them:...


Is there any sense in trying to make the modern-day reader understand the immense satisfaction we experienced in viewing our bright, clean wash arranged in such a meticulous fashion on the clothesline? Heaven knows we had more than enough to do without this added display of superhousewifery. But the whole ritual was a matter of pride.

And yet, I did enjoy the chapter about farm food and plan to try Mildred's recipe for apple cream pie. And her grandmother's shortcake recipe. I can guarantee, however, that I will never ever consider making headcheese. Ugh!!!

As far as I can tell, only one of my blogging friends has read and reviewed Little Heathens. Leave me a comment if I missed yours. I'd love to read your thoughts on the book!

Go here to read what Maudeen has to say about Little Heathens.


  1. Anonymous2:30 PM

    I'm glad to hear your thoughts on this book. I wondered if it might be a good one for our book group, but now I think maybe not. I know I shelved the thing a million times it seems like. For some reason, our branch had two copies of it. Anyway, I finally finished The Devil in the White city and while I think we'll have a good discussion, I'm so not wanting to read anything else non-fic for a while. Whew!

  2. Oh, Les, I read it and LOVED it! (no surprise, huh?!)


    As I mentioned once, Tom wasn't wild about it.

    One of the most memorable tidbits to me was using a piece from the broom to test a cake. Now I have a little broom I bought *just* for that purpose, but Kalish kind of laughs about how they didn't worry about germs. SUCH a difference from all the OCD stuff nowadays, isn't it.

  3. One of my book club members mentioned this as a possibility. I could tell that it didn't stir up a lot of interest, but since my mom grew up in Iowa during the Depression, I thought I might find it interesting. Like you, I didn't. But my mom really did enjoy it. Had it been better written, I think it could have been really entertaining.

  4. Sorry for the delay in responding to your comments. I was tied up with jury duty last week and was mentally exhausted by end of the day.

    Kay - I'm not sure if this would be a good one for a book group. If you lived near Iowa or had a lot of members who had lived through the Great Depression, it might be a good book to discuss. Otherwise, I doubt it. We pretty much digressed in our discussion and I don't think it was one of our better meetings.

    Nan - I know you did. But Tom didn't, eh? I wonder if Rod would like it. Somehow, I doubt it.

    Lisa - I wonder if my mom would enjoy it. Maybe I'll send it out to her. I can't think of anyone else I know who might like to read it. And, yes, I think it would've been a much more interesting book if the writing were better. Oh, well.

  5. I don't have a review yet but I will in a couple months when we read it for my library book club. Here's hoping I enjoy it more than you! Although something tells me probably not.

  6. Lesley - Ya never know. I'll be interested to hear how your library book club likes it.


I may not answer your comments in a timely fashion, but I always answer. Check back soon!