Gray Matter:An interesting book

Monday, August 20, 2007

"Little Heathens" by Mildred Armstrong Kalish, a native Iowan now living in California, is a GOOD read. The book has been well received by the critical community, even meriting front-page treatment by The New York Times Book Review.

In it, Kalish recounts her childhood memories of life on an Iowa farm in the midst of the Great Depression. She is a remarkable memorist. A memorist, the N.Y. Times reviewer explains, is not only "one who writes an autobiography" but also "one who remembers everything."

Mildred Kalish does just that, recounting her life, along with that of her two brothers, younger sister, and their divorced mother. After the father was mysteriously banished from the household, the family of five divided their time between her maternal grandparents' farm and a house in the small eastern-Iowa town of Garrison.

Being just a few years older, I could identify with much of her story, in spite of our many differences in family circumstances. Unlike me, she had brothers and a divorced mother, and they all lived with her extraordinarily strict grandparents. But there were other differences that set me to wondering. Now I am curious to know, in certain respects, which version of those long-ago years was most common, hers or mine.

Kalish told of their holding box-socials at the schools she attended. In my experience, box-socials were things of the past. My parents told of them when they were kids in country school, but they were no longer common by the time my mother was teaching, and unheard of when I was in school. So now I'm puzzled about this almost generational time lapse between eastern and central Iowa customs.

Another thing she emphasized, was her grandparents' refusal to go to either a doctor or a dentist. She made it sound as though that were the norm, saying it was because such services would take so much hard-earned money. Then too, she claimed that the adults took care of all such matters with home remedies. Well, that wasn't the case in my family. Regardless of the fact that we were as poor as the proverbial church mice, we somehow found money for regular dental check-ups as well as the services of the family doctor when necessary. My arm, broken in a foolish childhood accident, was set by him. Later, in another careless maneuver on my part, I got a huge sliver in a forefinger. When it became seriously infected I was again treated professionally. I still bear that scar.

When I developed a serious ear infection, following a bout of scarlet fever, a specialist from Fort Dodge was summoned to the farm. Years later, while at the University, I learned that one of the few co-eds on campus who had her own car was that specialist's daughter. My dad assured us he could understand, as he recalled what he considered the exorbitant fee he had paid for her father's services. Were my parents the exception or were Kalish's grandparents ?

In spite of my questionings, I thoroughly enjoyed "Young Heathens." Whether you are young, old, or in-between, I recommend it. Mildred Armstrong Kalish has poignantly preserved a bit of Midwest history, which we were in serious danger of losing.