July 02, 2007

Gosh all hemlock!

I'm enough of a Luddite that I found it more than a bit disconcerting earlier today, when bringing up the Amazon website to look at a book, to find the main page welcoming me with "Science Picks for Becky". But disconcertedness turned to intrigue when the first cover's illustration, and then its title, caught my eye: Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression by Mildred Armstrong Kalish, just out in May and just thirteen dollars and twenty cents. And the cover is adorable. A glowing five star review from someone who didn't seem to be related to Mrs. Kalish. Hmmm...

Then I went Google hunting and found Elizabeth Gilbert's glowing review in yesterday's New York Times Book Review. On the front page. From which:
Some of what follows is unsurprising. You’ll never guess it, but these kids were taught to work. They planted potatoes, tended livestock, hayed fields and were beaten for any lapses in judgment. They did without luxuries (electricity, leisure, heat) and were never coddled on account of their tender youth. (“Childhood was generally considered to be a disease,” Kalish recalls, “or, at the very least, a disability, to be ignored for the most part, and remedied as quickly as possible.”)

For anyone from an old-school farming background, this is familiar territory. “We were taught that if you bought something it should last forever — or as close to forever as we could contrive,” Kalish reports predictably. Or: “When one of us kids received a scratch, cut or puncture, we didn’t run to the house to be taken care of.” If all that “Little Heathens” offered, then, were more such hard-times homilies, this would not be much of a book. But this memoir is richer than that, filled with fervency, urgency and one amazing twist, which surprised me to the point of a delighted, audible gasp: Mildred Armstrong Kalish absolutely loved her childhood.

It’s not merely that she appreciated the values instilled by the Great Depression, or that now, in her older years, she wants to preserve memories of a lost time (though all this is true). No — beyond that, she reports quite convincingly that she had a flat-out ball growing up (“It was quite a romp”) and her terrifically soaring love for those childhood memories saturates this book with pure charm, while coaxing the reader into the most unexpected series of sensations: joy, affection, wonder and even envy. ...

Later in life, Kalish became a professor, and while the foundation of her writing is still English-teacher English (orderly, with perfect posture) her old pagan rhythms seep through every disciplined paragraph. “This was our world,” she writes, but one gets the feeling that Garrison, Iowa, was really her world, which she experienced with the awe of a mystic. In the violet dusk of a cornfield, in the cool mornings on her way to chores, on the long, unsupervised walks to school, in the decadence of eating bacon drippings, heavy cream and ground-cherries, Kalish’s simple life routinely aroused her to an almost erotic extreme. (Then again, this was the only kind of eroticism available; the poor girl was never taught even the starkest fundamentals of human sexuality, regretting that “in those days, we were supposed to get such information from the gutter. Alas! I was deprived of the gutter, too!”) ...

Kalish is wise enough to know that the last link to the past is usually language, and rather than lament what’s been lost, she stays connected to her youthful world by using its gleeful, if outdated, lingo. (Tell me the last time you heard someone exclaim, “Not on your tintype!” or “Gosh all hemlock!”) She admits self-deprecatingly that there were certain expressions she heard spoken so often as a child that she grew up mistakenly thinking they were each a single word: “agoodwoman, hardearnedmoney, agoodhardworker, alittleheathen, adrunkenbum, demonrum and agoodwoolskirt.”

Memories too can run together like this, becoming mishmashed over time. Not with Mildred Armstrong Kalish, though. As a natural-born memoirist (by which I mean not only “one who writes an autobiography” but also “one who remembers everything”), Kalish has kept her memories tidily ordered for decades. Now she has unpacked and worked them into a story that is not only trustworthy and useful (have I mentioned the recipe for homemade marshmallows?) but is also polished by real, rare happiness.

It is a very good book, indeed.

In fact, it is averyveryverygoodbook.
Sounds delightful, and perfect for Summer. Sold. And great good luck to Mrs. Kalish.

The book's website is here. Complete with farm recipes. Oh, and you can wet your whistle with a preview of Chapter One.

Also, this charming article, "Her stories of farm life could fill a bestseller: Hopes are high for debut by local grandmother", from The San Jose Mercury News.

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