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LITTLE HEATHENS By: Mildred Armstrong Kalish March 25, 2010

Posted by lycan librarian in book reviews, Books and reading.

     The entire title of this nonfiction selection is LITTLE HEATHENS: HARD TIMES AND HIGH SPIRITS ON AN IOWA FARM DURING THE GREAT DEPRESSION, and the title says it all. This is one of the most enjoyable memoirs on the shelves of the Moonlit Library. It is Mildred Armstrong Kalish’s story, and happily, she includes a wealth of recipes, cleaning tips and other tidbits that could have been forever lost to time. This book will tell you, among other things, how to scrub a pig’s head in preparation for making head-cheese, how to tame a raccoon, how to plant potatoes, and how to catch and skin a rabbit.

     During her childhood, the family resided three seasons on their farm, but the brutal winters had to be spent at Mildred’s puritanical Protestant grandmother’s house in the city so the children were able to get to and from school every day. This grandmother, who disapproved of nearly everything that they did, constantly called them little heathens, which lends the book its title.  After watching Mildred and her sister getting ” a soaping from head to toe” on the porch by their mother, and then running naked in the grass  to dry off, the grandmother proclaimed, “a body’d think…that you’d been peed on a stump and hatched by the sun.”

          Mildred’s father was banished from the house when she was five years old for a mysterious transgression, and his name was never again mentioned in her presence. The family survived without him, although the farm had no running water, no central heat, no electricity, and they had no money of which to speak. But Mildred is an optimistic person who viewed what others would have felt was a difficult childhood as an adventure, and she is thankful for every day she has had on this earth.
     For older patrons, this book is a sentimental journey, and for the younger ones, an interesting and inspiring trip down the roads of days long past, days when people bought things expecting them to last a lifetime, and extended family helped raise children instilled with positive values. Children were not coddled, and were put in categories of ‘big kids’ and ‘little kids’, and treated accordingly in daily life and in and the jobs they were assigned, for they all worked as soon as they were able, no matter how young.  The book was compiled from the author’s numerous journals and diaries she has kept through the years, so let’s hope, for all of our sakes, that she takes the time to sort through them and write more books to share with the world.

     There are many things I will never again view in the same way since reading this book. One tale Mildred tells is of women gossiping about disgraceful and wasteful others who don’t bother to clean out an eggshell with their finger before discarding it, and I have been cleaning mine out ever since reading this. Believe me, there is a surprising amount of egg white left in the shell if you merely dump the contents.
     Born in 1922, the author is unquestionably a woman to be reckoned with, and she has obviously lost none of her spunk over the years. Her author photo depicts her taking a brief break from stacking wood to turn and smile for the camera.



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