Little Heathens


Author:  Kalish, Mildred Armstrong

Title: Little Heathens:  Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression

Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir

Publication Date:  2007

Number of pages:  292

Geographic Setting:  Garrison, Iowa and a farm three miles from that village

Time Period: the Great Depression

Series:  No

Plot Summary:  Mildred Armstrong Kalish is 5-years-old when her father is banished from her life for “whispered references to bankruptcy, bootlegging, and jail time” (p.11).  Her mother and three other siblings are forced to move in with her mother’s puritanical parents in order to make ends meet during the Great Depression.  During the harsh winters, Kalish spends time in her grandparents’ house in town, the warmer months are spent tending one of her grandparents’ four farms.  Despite a lack of money, however, Kalish writes with appreciation and warm humor of this time in her life.  The book is filled with the joys of simple pleasures, such as the beauty of the full bloom of a crab apple tree, and the loving, if sometimes stern guiding hand of her relatives.  Also included in the book are recipes for dishes such as carrot marmalade and applesauce cake.  Little Heathens was selected as one of the 10 Best Books of the Year by The New York Times Book Review in 2007.

Subject Headings:  Farm life—Iowa, 20th century Depressions, Iowa Rural Families

Appeal:  contemplative, earnest, homespun, nostalgic, introspective, closely observed, engaging, authentic, family-centered, informative, straightforward, candid, well-crafted

3 terms that best describe the book:  warmhearted, honest, charming

3 relevant Non-Fiction Works and Authors:

A Good Day’s Work: An Iowa Farm in the Great Depression by Dwight W. Hoover

Hoover describes his boyhood on a 100-acre Iowa family farm.  He calls the farm, “a capitalistic enterprise overlaid on a subsistence occupation.”

A Son of the Middle Border by Hamlin Garland and Keith Newlin (introduction)

Kalish was a farm girl who went on to become a professor of English.  This is the story of Hamlin Garland, a farm boy raised with the uncompromising work ethic of a rural, homesteading life who grew up to become a renowned writer in the early twentieth century, winning a Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1922.

Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl by Carol Bodensteiner

Bodensteiner also fondly recalls growing up on an Iowa farm; a family-owned dairy farm in the 1950s.  Farming then was a demanding, yet rewarding way of life, in a time that seemed more innocent.

Three Relevant Fiction Works and Authors

A Thousand Acres: A Novel by Jane Smiley

Like Kalish’s story, this novel is based on an Iowa farm and also deals with family issues, as told through the voice of a female protagonist, Ginny.  Larry Cook decides to turn over his 1,000-acre Iowa farm to his three daughters.  However, tensions mount when he rescinds on the deal, by striking one of the daughters, Caroline, out of his will after determining that she is not grateful for his generosity. Darker family secrets are revealed. The novel won the 1991 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Set in 1939, during the Great Depression, this classic story follows the hardships of migrant farm workers forced into an itinerant lifestyle after the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. The novel has a sympathetic, authentic voice, like Little Heathens.

Gilead: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson

Set in Gilead, Iowa, John Ames is a 77-year-old preacher in 1956, writing letters to his six-year-old son.  He ruminates on many topics, including the often harsh burdens of life on a Midwestern prairie.  Like Heathens, the story focuses on the legacy of family.

By Rosemary Sullivan


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