Little Heathens

A long time ago (a few years), I used to listen to the NYT Book Review podcast. That’s where I first heard about this book, they mentioned it and gave it some critical acclaim. In fact, it was getting critical acclaim from a lot of book types. It’s one woman’s story of growing up on an Iowa farm. It’s a very simple topic, but I need me a little simple, so I grabbed the used paperback during my most recent buying binge at the Brown Elephant (Oak Park).

I think about my book reading life sometimes. It’s not so simple anymore.

I spend a lot of time figuring out what books I’m going to read. I take notes and highlight stuff while I read. And finally, I write up one of these takes. It’s a detailed three step process of discovery, execution, and review. What am I doing?

The old reading process, the one I followed in my childhood, was much simpler, but still three steps.

  • Pick up book
  • Read book
  • Put book down

Right or wrong, that ain’t how it works anymore. And I’m not sure if I’m better off or not. That’s one feeling I got from reading this book. Are we better off in this modern age?

Mildred Armstrong Kalish tells stories about her early childhood during the Great Depression. She didn’t have running water, had to hang her clothes out to dry, and couldn’t afford to buy books, but she had a wonderful time full of unconditional love, character building moments, humorous escapades, and learning experiences. Here’s how she sums it up in her own words:

Retrospection can be illuminating, it can be numbing, it can be sobering; it can be fruitful, it can gladden my heart, and it can drown me in despair. But looking back on my early days on our farm in Iowa, I find that I take enormous satisfaction in my memories of the past, and my reflections on how that time, so rich, so satisfying, so fulfilling, yet so undeniably challenging, affected me (pg 269).

She recaps many moments, some highly personal, and at times completely baring her soul. It’s all very innocent and honest. I admit, I got emotional a few times. Here’s one of my favorites:

I think it is a universal trait to wallow in memories of the the tastes, fragrances, and textures of foods from one’s childhood. Proust probably wasn’t the first to celebrate this phenomenon on paper, but he is certainly the one who became famous for launching an entire novel with a description of a well-remembered fragrance – that of the madeleine. The smell of bacon is what brings back a flood of memories to me, and the closest I come to Proust’s experience is the joy that comes over me when I conjure up the taste of a sandwich made of homemade bread spread with smoked bacon drippings, toped with the thinnest slices of crisp red radishes freshly harvested from the garden, and sprinkled over with coarse salt. Bacon fat was as important in our kitchen as chicken fat is in a Jewish kitchen. In those days we saved all of the grease left over after frying bacon to use for frying bread, eggs, and potatoes, and often to flavor vegetables. Of course, that was long before we had any knowledge of cholesterol (page 120-1).

That Proust reference relates to his book In Search of Lost Time, which you can read about here in the Wikipedia article.

She also talks about her bond with nature. She really appreciates the feel of a day, a special sunset, and the ferocity of mother nature. For me, a hot, humid early morning at the golf course brings back a flood of memories of early morning forays as a kid. Just the smell and feel of the air are comforting. Kalish has similar experiences. She recounts rainstorms at the farm:

Mama taught us to love rainstorms so much that even the weather was an entertainment. When the thunderheads began to build up in the west, she would gather the four of us to admire the way they boiled and climbed higher and higher; we watched mesmerized as the black clouds advanced swiftly, turning darker and more threatening as they got closer, while thunder and lightning flashed from the topmost clouds to the very ground. Transfixed, we would watch the great wall of rain advance slowly across the oat field, eagerly awaiting the brief moment when raindrops the size of plums pelted us. And then came the deluge, engulfing us in a gigantic drapery of rain. We all reveled in such an event. Some years later when I read Mark Twain’s description of a Midwest thunderstorm, I had what E.B. White called a “spirit laid against spirit” reaction. I knew exactly what Twain was writing about. … (pg 221)

Kalish describes a reading nirvana, a certain “knowing exactly” what the author was writing about. You’ll certainly get that feeling a couple of times during this book even if you’re only remotely in touch with your childhood. It does grab you and make you think about how the world has changed, or if it has really changed at all. And if it has changed, is it better? Or does it really matter?

There are no easy answers to these questions. I’ve lived in a large urban area for 21 years but I’m writing this as I spend a few days in my mid-sized hometown, far removed from the big city. I know the world has changed, but I have trouble discerning if the change in the world around me is a function of the time or the setting. The American experience varies so widely by region and we are so mobile as a country, that I doubt the naked eye or a gut feeling can discern an overall change in the most basic sentiments of 300 million people.

Are kids lazier and meaner? Is greed more prevalent? Have we lost core values like thrift and hard work? Is our national attention span getting shorter because of the internet?

I don’t know. I’m not smart enough to sort through that before I die. And it’s really not the point of this book to answer those questions. Kalish is just giving us the facts of her youth and explaining to how they shaped her life. I think she feels it’s worth reflecting on the same for ourselves. I’ve been doing some reflecting a lot lately and I agree with Kalish, it can be “sobering and fruitful.”

She makes no proclamations about the state of the world and doesn’t preach to the reader. This book is simple, but my mind conjured up some complicated questions as I read it. Well done by Kalish, she seems like a cool woman.