Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Two Memoirs of the Great Depression: Anneville by Thomas G. Robinson and Little Heathens by Mildred Armstrong Kalish

I feel like talking about books, finally, so I'm going to bash out some mini reviews and pre-post to my heart's content. Anneville and Little Heathens are books I acquired because I currently have a particular interest in the Great Depression.

Anneville: A Memoir of the Great Depression by Thomas G. Robinson is a little confusing, title-wise. Anneville is a memoir with names of people and places changed and written with as much accuracy as memory provides but in the introduction the author refers to it as a novel because he's aware that memory is imperfect. I don't think it was necessary to rename the book a novel within the intro, but it's a nice touch since there have been some controversies about invented memoirs in recent years.

As to the content, Anneville is absolutely charming. Thomas, the author, is clearly Thos in the book (one of 6 children) and the book is told in past tense, third person, but you mostly see things from his perspective. The Robinsons' father absconded early in the book, leaving a mother with 6 children, no income, and no relatives nearby. You get a good idea of the difficulties the family went through as they were evicted twice, each time moving into a home of lesser size and quality, and the mother had to beg the selectment of Anneville to give them a weekly allowance. This was called living "on the town" and it was frowned upon. Occasionally, Mrs. Robinson resorted to stealing electricity and, at least once, food.

But, though the book describes constant hunger, cold, outgrown shoes and clothing, and how the impoverished are treated with disdain, it's mostly about boyhood and that's what makes the book so captivating. There are tales of jaunts into the woods to skinny dip in a swimming hole, having to prove oneself tough (there are quite a few fistfights), pranks and silly games the children came up with that got them into trouble, school stories, and an adventure in which two of the boys helped a WWI vet enjoy his last days. Anneville is lovely in many ways.

The book is an Author House publication and like many self-published books, Anneville is rife with errors. There are a few inconsistencies in the memories, as well, but I enjoyed the storytelling so much that I gave the book 4 out of 5 stars, taking a single point off for the book's problems. I'm glad I read it. Just be aware that you will have to fight your internal editor a bit if you're a perfectionist. Recommended.

Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm by Mildred Armstrong Kalish is similarly misleading in that the words "hard times" absolutely do not belong in that subtitle. The author's father was out of the picture, as Thomas Robinson's father in Anneville was, but her grandparents owned a farm and a home in town debt-free and the children alternated between living at the farm and the house in town. There was never any threat of being kicked out or having their possessions hauled away.

The farm had livestock and fowl to provide milk, eggs and meat, as well as vegetables and orchards. Even honey was available, although it could be tricky to acquire. Young Mildred also had the advantage of a large, extended family that banded together. As such, the only hardship that enters into the picture at all was the fact that the houses were not fully heated, forcing the occupants to either cram together in a single heated room or bundle up and shiver.

There are some charming stories about life -- box socials, holidays with the family, splitting wood, etc. But, Little Heathens is heavily focused on food, with recipes interspersed throughout. I perused the reviews at Goodreads when I was considering requesting the book from Paperback Swap and quite a few people complained about the quantity of recipes and the author's arrogance as she often remarked that "kids today" don't know how to do this or that thing she was taught to do by hand in the olden days. Forewarned is forearmed. Those comments didn't bother me. I found the book entertaining and upbeat. Kalish set the scene beautifully, describing various aspects of her childhood in vivid detail. In fact, when she mentioned the song, "Hello, Central, Give Me Heaven," she helped add a little dimension to the reading of Parade's End, in which Sylvia Tietjens refers to her maid as "Hullo Central" because of her tinny, high-pitched voice. The operator at a central telephone exchange must have sounded oddly metallic through early phone lines, both in the U.S. and abroad. Interesting. Recommended.

Of the two books, I enjoyed Anneville the most -- in spite of its editing problems -- because the tales of childhood were so immensely entertaining and I was (and am) particularly in search of stories about how people dealt creatively with poverty, cold and hunger during the Great Depression. I liked both books very much, though, and I'm glad I read them.

©2015 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery  or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.


  1. I love reading about the Great Depression. I'll be looking for these two books.

    1. They're both quite interesting. My mother was one of those Depression kids whose dad ran off when he couldn't support his family. To the day she died, Mom wouldn't talk about her childhood, no matter how hard my sister and I tried to pry stories out of her.


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