Recently, a good friend handed me Mildred Armstrong Kalish’s outstanding book, Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression, and succinctly said, “I think you’ll appreciate this.” And she was right. Named one of the best 10 books in 2007 by the New York Times, Little Heathens is a breath of fresh air, a message of hope and revival, and a timely reminder of how we once knew how to grow our own food, chop our own wood, and survive on next to nothing. I’ve returned to the book as a constant reference, source of inspiration, and general salve for simple, good ideas, common sense, and for a dose of Millie’s refreshingly honest and joyous take on life. Part memoir, part how-to manual, her life lessons of hard work, self-reliance, and determination to make it through one of the toughest times in American history are especially relevant today.
Born in 1922 on a farm near Garrison, Iowa, Kalish grew up during the Great Depression under the watchful eye of her family and community. Her grandparents, with whom she and her four siblings lived part of the year, “never quite made it into the twentieth century” and imposed strict habits, the main message being: “Endure deprivation without complaining; mind your manners at all times; do as your elders say.” Millie writes, “Austere and challenging as it was, it built character, fed the intellect, and stirred the imagination.”
Building character and developing a sense of responsibility was the essential focus of her life. Much of the book is devoted to entire chapters on how her family survived on a rural farm in record cold with no running water, no central heat, no electricity, and no money. And while Millie and her family were very poor, they were rich in so many other ways. Rather than painting a picture of desperation, or of yearning for “the good old days,” Millie’s book is chocked full of creative, home made solutions and the kind of “can do” American spirit that seems hard to come by these days. A whole chapter devoted to “Thrift” details how every last thing was saved, reused, and recycled. “We were taught that if you bought something it should last forever—or as close to forever as we could contrive,” writes Millie.
A chapter on “Medicine” notes the common knowledge of home remedies (Vaseline, lard, baking soda, boric acid, Vicks, etc.) from the People’s Home Library, a “compendium of lore on the treatment and medication of people and livestock, and on domestic science or cooking and household management.” People hardly, if ever, went to the doctor, and largely took responsibility for their own healthcare. We need that book today (and, yes, it’s available online).
Writing about the “kinship of souls that is created when everyone gathers in a kitchen to prepare a meal together,” Millie’s chapter on “Farm Food” is loaded with recipes for Corn Oysters, succotash, buttermilk pancakes, cooked pheasants (“disjoint four ring-neck pheasant…”), cabbage salad, apple pies, and homemade marshmallows. She writes:
I do feel that the knowledge of how to fry potatoes, make a piecrust, and dress a chicken encourages self-sufficiency and creates a sense of confidence in one’s ability to cope with life. Indeed, I want my own family to be aware of the foods, the ingenuity, the knowledge, the skills, and above all, the everlasting work that was required to survive when resources and supplied were limited.
“Chores” lays out the reality of hard work on a rural farm, with the youngest being recruited into the workforce early on. From garden and farm work, such as oat schocking, to household and kitchen duty (dishwashing meant spelling lessons, math and science were learned through biscuit making), there are whole chapters devoted to “Milking,” “Wash Day,” “Gathering Nuts,” “Gathering Wood,” and “Outhouses”. And while many of us might see this kind of work as intolerably arduous, which make no mistake, it could be, Millie also writes about the inestimable rewards of learning discipline and independence.
Especially meaningful is her description of living in close contact with the animals on her farm: “The domestic animals were almost like people to us, and we treated them with respect. Their welfare was always our prime concern.” She writes:
Interacting so closely with the wildlife, along with domestic farm animals, was not a trivial aspect of our young lives. I have come to believe that this close relationship not only immensely enriched our growing-up experience, it made us kinder, more empathic, more understanding human beings. In addition, it clarified and defined our responsibility to these creatures and the entire natural community.
Millie did eventually leave the farm and continued working her whole life, becoming an English professor. Today she is a Professor Emeritus of English, retired from Suffolk County Community College on Long Island and she taught at the State University of Iowa at Iowa City, the State University of Missouri at Columbia, and at Adelphi University in Garden City, NY.
I recently had the enormous pleasure of speaking to Millie, who had just returned from another book tour, where she won an “emerging author” award, about which she said, “At 88, it’s a thrill!”
CE: Your book has been an enormous success and has taken on a life of its own. To what do you attribute the response?
MK: Well, I’m honestly dumbfounded by the response. It’s as if I’m standing outside of myself and looking at someone else’s charmed life. When the book first came out, by and large, there was an immediate response from older folks. But now, I’m getting emails from the “going green” crowd and “eco moms” as well as the “voluntary simplicity” types. It’s amazing who is reading this book. I get e-mails from 16 year olds and 96 year olds. People write me for home tips, to trade recipes, and to share ideas.
As a 24-year-old raised by a frugal mother and trained in the fine art of delayed gratification, I think I would appreciate reading it. Besides, I've always heard stories from my grandparents growing up on the farm during the Depression and this could give me some insight on those not-often heard stories!