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Bookmarks Issue: 
33-Mar-Apr-2008
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Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression

A-Little HeathensFor Mildred Armstrong Kalish, life on an Iowa farm in the throes of the country’s worst economic crisis turned out a whole lot better than one might expect. Taken in as a young girl by her grandparents after the banishment of her father for mysterious reasons (his name was never mentioned again within the family, nor does the author make much of that fact), Kalish was buoyed by the companionship, guidance, and rock-ribbed Midwestern values of teachers, siblings, and community. Recipes and advice on a variety of activities—from skinning a rabbit to making headcheese ("scrub the [pig’s] head until … pink and clean")—round out, with a contagious nostalgia, Kalish’s paean to her happy childhood.
Bantam. 292 pages. $22. ISBN: 0553804952

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"[The author] includes recipes, home remedies, and advice on how to butcher poultry, but you won’t find a whine from beginning to end. … Kalish’s love of nature pervades every page, and her ethos of hard work and self-discipline will have you itching to put up some tomatoes and try out her recipe for homemade marshmallows." Yvonne Zipp

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Little Heathens made me ache for my own Depression-era Grandma, with her hand-cranked clothes wringer and her North Dakotan speech tut-tutting the modern women who won’t bother to use a spatula to scrape their bowls… This is a book to awaken your family’s own half-remembered stories—or better, to send you back to your elders to scour up your own." Karen R. Long

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"As a natural-born memoirist (by which I mean not only ‘one who writes an autobiography’ but also ‘one who remembers everything’), Kalish has kept her memories tidily ordered for decades. Now she has unpacked and worked them into a story that is not only trustworthy and useful … but is also polished by real, rare happiness." Elizabeth Gilbert

San Antonio Exp-News 4 of 5 Stars
"It is more than a nostalgic memoir. It’s history and sociology and a primer for character- and confidence-building." Marina Pisano

Washington Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The stories told in Little Heathens are reminiscent of other classic American autobiographies that, over the years, have defined our culture. … Its message of hard work, thrift, dedication, discipline, resourcefulness and goodwill is especially needed in a wasteful, self-indulgent society; so is the book’s unabashed delight in the pure, simple pleasures that, in the end, are what really what make life so rewarding." Marion Elizabeth Rodgers

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This is a lovely re-creation of an Iowa girlhood before the invasion of the electrified time-wasters and soul-deadening initialisms of TV, PC and IM. … She is unsqueamish, the surest sign of a farm girl, and also wry, affectionate, forgiving: a delightful companion." Bill Kauffman

Critical Summary

One of the most endearing qualities of octogenarian Mildred Armstrong Kalish’s Little Heathens is that it runs counter to what the memoir, sadly, has too frequently become—self-indulgent, self-promoting gossip. Despite circumstances that could easily have left her embittered, Kalish, a retired English professor, recalls her formative years fondly. Through simple, honest prose punctuated with "her old pagan rhythms" (New York Times Book Review) and a host of memorable examples, Kalish performs her greatest feat, which is to make some of us under 80 just the slightest bit envious—crazy to say, but such is human nature—that we never experienced the Depression-era challenges and triumphs so lovingly recounted.