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Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression Hardcover – May 29, 2007

4.6 out of 5 stars 335 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Kalish's memoir of her Iowa childhood, set against the backdrop of the Depression, captures a vanished way of traditional living and a specific moment in American history in a story both illuminating and memorable. Kalish lived with her siblings, mother and grandparents-seven in all-both in a town home and, in warmer weather, out on a farm. The lifestyle was frugal in the extreme: "The only things my grandparents spent money on were tea, coffee, sugar, salt, white flour, cloth and kerosene." But in spite of the austere conditions, Kalish's memories are mostly happy ones: keeping the farm and home going, caring for animals, cooking elaborate multi-course meals and washing the large family's laundry once a week, by hand. Here, too, are stories of gossiping in the kitchen, digging a hole to China with the "Big Kids" and making head cheese at butchering time. Kalish skillfully rises above bitterness and sentiment, giving her memoir a clear-eyed narrative voice that puts to fine use a lifetime of careful observation: "Observing the abundance of life around us was just so naturally a part of our days on the farm that it became a habit." Simple, detailed and honest, this is a refreshing and informative read for anyone interested in the struggles of average Americans in the thick of the Great Depression.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

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.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam; 1 edition (May 29, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0553804952
  • ISBN-13: 978-0553804959
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 0.8 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (335 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #517,808 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Schmerguls VINE VOICE on July 8, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This is an entrancing memoir of days now long gone, but vivid in the minds of those who lived them. While I lived on an Iowa farm in western Iowa rather than eastern Iowa, and was a boy, and was about six years younger than the author, this book recalled so much of what it was like that reading it was sn unmitigated delight. The author recognizes "the all-too-human tendency to gloss over the bad and glorify, or at least magnify, the good" when recalling one's childhood, but it sure makes greater reading to read of one's appreciated childhood than it does to read of one who looks back thereon in bitterness. Thus this book beats, e.g., Angela's Ashes by a mile in enjoyable reading.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Little Heathens, the memoir of an Iowa farm childhood, is a marvelously vivid encounter with an iconic way of life that has largely gone the way of the elm tree. The author Mildred Kalish, valedictorian of her high school class back in 1940, turns a sharp, remarkably objective eye on those descendents of the pioneers, "more 19th century than 20th," who raised her to live off the land through Iowa's "fierce blizzards" and some of America's worst times.

But this is not Little-House-on-the-Prairie. Yes, Kalish can rustle up the poignant details of honey gathering and head-cheese making. She can tell you how to domesticate raccoons and explain the proper use of beets to draw boils. What's unique here, though, is Kalish's portrait of an austere people whose Puritan tradition frowned on joy, prohibited affection in word or touch, "built character" with an open bible and homilies that dotted their days.

Fortunately, while Kalish grew up hearing that "whistling girls and crowing hens will always come to some bad end," such warnings never dampened the spirits of the "little heathens" -- as her grandmother called the farm's children. Eight decades later she has brought those stern sepia-toned faces back to full color through their words (from "Oh my soul" to "shit from shinola"), their ideals ("better to wear out than rust out"), and their deepest pleasures ("the kinship of souls that is created when everyone gathers in the kitchen to prepare a meal"). Reading Little Heathens, you become part of that lovely kinship for a while.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I loved every word of this book! The author grew up fresh and innocent and kind and loving in a very difficult, but pure, time in our history. In this too-short book she goes into all aspects of that life -- the fun, the harships, the extended family, the recipes, schooling, holidays, etc. I would really love another book or two by her, fleshing out some of these chapters. I would especially love a cookbook. I loved the short chapters on their animals and pets! I would like more on her school studies and friends. And more old photos.

After reading this book, I fervently wished I could know Mildred Armstrong Kalish. She is obviously a smart and sweet lady, appearing to be very much like my beloved grandmother who was raised in Kansas a few years prior to the time of which this author writes. It is amazing to think what changes she has been through, what changes our country has been through! I hope I don't sound too old when I say that I miss the good ole days, even though I wasn't fortunate enough to have lived through them. I miss the excitement over even the smallest things (birth of an animal, fresh-baked foods) and the simple but important teachings of her ever-present family. I would like more details about the members of her family and herself after she left town and began other adventures -- in the military, teaching, marriage and family, cars, television, etc. HOW this country has changed! Please read this book to re-connect with our roots. It is enlightening and funny and interesting and always educational and entertaining. And everyone today knows how we love our entertainment!
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Format: Hardcover
Even though I am a 42-year-old city girl, this book resonated with me. Ms. Kalish writes with gratifying specificity of "the little things that make up a life." You'll wonder how her generation had enough energy to do the endless work it took to survive on a family farm. I'd recommend her story to anyone who is interested in what daily life was like in another era.

But here's what moved me to write this review: Ms. Kalish's recipe for Apple Cream Pie! It is an odd, open-faced creation with big chunks of apples and heavy cream poured on top. I've been baking apple pies from scratch all my life, but people keep telling me this is the best one I have ever made. Don't miss her recipe for pie crust, either. Her vegetable-oil crust is not only healthier and much easier than traditional pie crusts, but addictively delicate and crisp. When she tells you, in her intro to the recipe, that you'll never bother making any other type of crust again, she's not lying. I intend to try all the other recipes in this book. How generous of Ms. Kalish to share her time-tested gems with the world.
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By A Customer on June 2, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Mildred Armstrong Kalish provides a deep look back to growing up on a farm in Iowa during the Depression. Ms. Kalish's family of seven lived a frugal lifestyle in which three generations resided in the home with the only missing person being her exiled father although why she was not sure. Her cousins lived on nearby farms so the extended family was nearby to help if needed.

The key to this superb discerning memoir is Ms. Kalish avoids acrimony and sugared (except when grandpa bought some) nostalgia to provide a vivid picture of a bygone era in which an extended family was there to raise the children with positive values. Life on the farm during harsh economic conditions was fun to a preadolescent Mildred although some chores were simply work. With black and white pictures to enhance the era and "farm food" recipes that were not microwave, LITTLE HEATHENS is a well written winner providing a powerful look at the 1930s in the Midwest. Ms. Kalish showcases how different life was back then from today when for instance the three Klausner brothers live in Georgia, New Jersey and Texas respectively and outhouses is a Three Stooges' joke.

Harriet Klausner
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