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A Secret Gift: How One Man's Kindness--and a Trove of Letters--Revealed the Hidden History of t he Great Depression Hardcover – October 28, 2010

4.2 out of 5 stars 173 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In a book grown out of a New York Times op-ed piece that drew a huge response, Gup (The Book of Honor) explores an unusual act of generosity by his grandfather, Sam Stone, during the Great Depression and other mysteries of Stone's life. Discovering a trunk full of old letters addressed to "Mr. B. Virdot," Gup soon learned that the letters were responses to a newspaper ad Stone ran before Christmas 1933, anonymously promising to 75 of Canton, Ohio's neediest families if they wrote letters describing their hardships. (Some of the heartbreaking letters are reprinted here.) But Gup soon learns that Stone had other secrets: the jovial, wealthy businessman had escaped a horrific childhood as a Romanian Jew, immigrating to America and reinventing himself to fit into all-American Canton, Ohio. Gup also tracked down families who benefited from Stone's gift to discover the impact it had on their lives. Gup paints sobering pictures of "the Hard Times" and the gift made by a successful man who hadn't forgotten his own hard times. (Nov.) (c)
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From Booklist

Investigative reporter Gup researched a file of Depression-era letters preserved by his family. They were responses to a Canton, Ohio, newspaper notice that Gup’s grandfather, using a pseudonym, had placed in December 1933, which offered a monetary gift and, perhaps more importantly, a promise of anonymity to recipients of his charity. That tapped into social attitudes characteristic of the Depression generation—pride in self-reliance matched by mortification to be seen accepting help, overlain with disdain for complaining. Those characteristics vividly animate Gup’s remarkable portraits of the letter writers, which encompass their backgrounds, their bewildering descent to destitute circumstances, and the influence of the Depression on their own and their children’s subsequent working lives. A subplot involving the identity of Gup’s advertising grandfather, who, for unknown reasons, obfuscated his birth in Romania, also productively interacts with the main plot of what motivated his manner of giving money away at Christmastime. Highly affecting emotionally, Gup’s empathic portraits should powerfully pique memories in Gup’s readers about their own family’s experience of the economic trauma of the 1930s. --Gilbert Taylor

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press; Reprint edition (October 28, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594202702
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594202704
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.4 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (173 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #243,240 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Susanna Hutcheson TOP 1000 REVIEWER on November 8, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I've long had a keen interest in The Great Depression. I saw the effects of it in the lives of my grandparents and parents and was always curious about why they did some of the things they did. Why did they horde things? Save things that to me seemed useless? Why did my grandparents keep their money in cash at home? Why wouldn't they talk about the Depression when I asked about it?

When I read this well-written, eloquent book, it brought tears to my eyes. And, I'm not a woman given to tears. Author Ted Gup takes us back to a time that is, in many ways, being repeated even now. So, it's timely. And yet, it's history. A moving, terrible history. It's hard to read about it. It must have been total hell to live it.

Gup interviewed about five hundred descendants --- "many of them multiple times."

There are many books written about the Depression economy. We've tried to learn what happened to cause the Depression and who or what caused it to finally lift. Though we still don't really have all those answers, we do have the opportunity to study it.

But the people who suffered through it are not in those books for the most part. In this book, however, they're the stars. We feel their suffering and understand why a generation was like it was and how it produced yet another generation that was similar.

But it's more than even that. It's a mystery. The author discovers his own grandfather was the mystery-giver of $750 in anonymous money given in $5 checks in 1933.

Why did his grandfather, Sam Stone, do it? And why did he choose to be anonymous and indeed was for 75 years? The author didn't find all the answers but he found many that surprised even him. He found out things about his grandfather he never knew.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Sam Stone's grandson discovered Sam had been an anonymous donor of five dollar checks to some of the most needy people in Canton, Ohio in 1933. This is a true detective story. This is the exactly right time to tell the story.

Imagine for a moment working hard, paying bills promptly, and putting money regularly into the savings bank. Then suddenly you lost your job. There was no unemployment insurance. You go to the bank and find it closed with all your savings gone. There is no FDIC. You try to sell your belongings. Sometimes this will feed the family for a while. Once your furniture is gone, and your house repossessed, and you are living as a whole family without heat or a bed in a room somewhere. Five dollars sometimes gave people enough hope to save them from suicide. Sometimes it meant an orange and a pair of shoes.

Ted Gup found descendants of the people his grand father had helped. He even found one still living who could remember the help. He followed up every one of his grandfather's checks, a tremendous task in itself.

But equally important he learned that his generous life affirming grandfather was an illegal alien who loved his adopted country with fear and passion.

This is an elegant book that bring to life early 20th century history. Read it please, and be glad for our safety nets no matter how inadequate they may be. It was once so much worse.
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By tmw on November 16, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
this book is incredible! It will truly make you see the meaning of going hungry and what it means to give a gift from the heart. What it must have been like for granparents and great granparents in the depression, when not having a job meant way more than just not having a job! This book will touch your heart and soul!! A must read, especially this time of year.
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Format: Hardcover
I read Mr. Gup's article in the December, 2010 issue of SMITHSONIAN magazine about the story behind A SECRET GIFT, and was immediately intrigued. The article was concise, and crisply written - exploring the secret generosity of Mr. Gup's grandfather, a Roumanian immigrant named Sam Stone, toward needy families during the Christmas season 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression. The article was so good, I immediately knew I wanted to read the book.

A SECRET GIFT should have been a really wonderful, profound reading experience. But the author, who is described as an "award winning" investigative reporter, produced a meandering, piecemeal semi-memoir. The brief article in SMITHSONIAN led me to believe Mr. Gup was a good writer, but this book badly needed strong editing. The stories of the families who were helped by Sam Stone's generosity, and Sam Stone's own life story, are fascinating and heartbreaking. But the writing just plods along when it should soar. The topheavy 20-word title should have tipped me off.

I thought Mr. Gup's handling of parallels between the Great Depression and the continuing economic crisis of today was heavy handed, and frankly, his continuous effort to link the two distinct eras of economic crisis dragged the book down.

I have to give A SECRET GIFT three stars for the heartwrenching appeal of the stories of families assisted by Sam Stone's generosity, which Mr. Gup does an admirable job of uncovering. In that respect, his investigative skills are well applied. Yet, his style or manner of bringing these personal stories to the reader is so blah - such a static, uninvolved, almost-recitation of facts and dates, that even these left me a little cold and disappointed.
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