I can’t remember who first recommended “Little Heathens” by Mildred Armstrong Kalish to me. But to that mystery person–thanks!
Right up my alley–a memoir, in this case about growing up in Iowa during the Great Depression.
Kalish begins by recording the big mystery of her childhood–her father was banished from the family when she was five. She never hears from him again. She never learns why he went away.
Yet what I recall of her story isn’t a sense of sadness, or of dismay at the conspicuousness of having a divorce in the family. What I recall is that despite their lack of money and the absence of a father, Mildred considered her childhood to be full of interest and energy.
She details food, animals, school, swear words, bathroom behavior, and other aspects of life that were most interesting to children. She conveys the sense that I hear in my own parents’ recollections of that time, a sense of one’s own efforts being important to the family’s economy, and further, a sense that there was no shame in being poor at a time when just about everyone was poor.
I wouldn’t say that Kalish romanticizes that time, but she conveys how much she values that she grew up on a farm where day after day something interesting happened and where she learned to work hard. That background served her well when she set out on her own.
Kalish notes that it could be hard to be a child in a home such as her grandparents’, where fun took a far back seat to work. She doesn’t often seem to feel sorry for herself, but I was deeply struck by this passage that concludes the chapter on town school, “At home I couldn’t do anything right; at school I seemed to do everything right. So, school is where I wanted to be.”
I’ve recommended this book to many friends as a quick read that connected with me because Kalish’s young life in Iowa was so similar to that of my parents’ childhood in Nebraska. I think it would make for a good book group selection because plenty of serious themes arise even in stories of a happy childhood–fairness, whether we are loved, and how we find our place in the world.