Iowa Public Television

 

Early Life of Thrift and Simplicity Retold

posted on January 25, 2008


DES MOINES, IOWA (AP)Mildred Armstrong Kalish's memoir is not about the author. It's about a way of life that is long gone.

"If you'll look at this book, you'll notice that I very deliberately kept myself as much out of it as possible," the 85-year-old said about her first book.

"Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression" chronicles Miss Kalish's family's life during the 1930s in tiny Garrison, Iowa. In her evocative but not overly sentimental book, she describes her role in the collective rural life of her childhood.

She briefly describes her family — an absent father, strict grandparents, spirited aunts, mischievous siblings and a complicated mother. Yet it's their chores, recipes, old sayings, pranks and virtues that dominate the book.

"I wanted to capture that as a place, as a people — the farm, responsibilities, our relationships to the land and to the animals and that adventure of a small-town and rural life," Miss Kalish said.

It was a time when youngsters expertly beheaded a chicken for supper and started Thanksgiving dessert in May with the planting of pumpkin seeds. There were stinky outhouses and wise observations from grandmother: "If you're looking for a helping hand, look at the end of your arm."

Miss Kalish wouldn't want to return to those times, but she wants to pass down lessons she learned as a child.

"I wanted especially, you know, that the kids understood the old virtues, which I think need to be reinstated. And those virtues are self-reliance and self-discipline and thrift. I think we have an unbelievably wasteful generation now. We never wasted one little thing and we don't have that anymore," she says. "Along with this practice of self-discipline and self-reliance came a feeling of confidence. I never felt that anything could lick me."

As a teenager, Miss Kalish earned $4 a week as hired help on a nearby farm. That gave her money to finally buy a few luxuries. "Buying a 10-cent lipstick and box of 12 sanitary napkins was a really, really satisfying object," she says.

She left Iowa for good around 1952, then spent decades teaching literature and writing at Suffolk County Community College on Long Island in New York; the University of Missouri in Columbia; and Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y. A couple years ago, she and her husband settled south of San Francisco, in Cupertino near one of her two sons.

Miss Kalish first thought of writing about her childhood in the early 1990s, when her young granddaughter repeatedly asked for "a farm story."

"I began to think I should collect these stories and write them down," says Miss Kalish, who spent about five years writing the book off and on, finally completing her manuscript in 2005. She did most of her writing on a computer, but she also compiled some of her stories by hand.

Her intention wasn't to get a book deal, but to document her story for family members. The book was released in May 2007, and there are nearly 75,000 copies in print, according to publisher Bantam Dell.

Although she taught writing for decades, Miss Kalish struggled to refine her own prose.

"I worked very hard on the style," she says. "There's one paragraph in there that I spent a full five days on, trying to get it so that it was plain and understood."

Miss Kalish has traveled widely to promote her book, including trips to Minnesota, Florida, Iowa and California. She's usually accompanied by a relative, because she has macular degeneration that affects her vision. In September, she visited Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City, and store manager Jan Weissmiller said a couple hundred people showed up.

"She's quite a character. She's really lively and she's kind of irreverent. She's just really wonderful," Miss Weissmiller said, adding that Miss Kalish has sold more than 600 copies of the book in the last six months — a remarkable feat for a store the size of Prairie Lights Books.

That kind of interest keeps Miss Kalish going.

"Almost every day I have somebody come up to me or send me an e-mail saying, 'You wrote my story,'" she says.

Critics have been supportive as well. "Little Heathens" — what her grandmother called the children — was named to the New York Times' "10 Best Books of 2007." It's gotten positive reviews from Publishers Weekly, the Christian Science Monitor and the American Library Association's Booklist, among others.

The popularity of Miss Kalish's book could also speak to readers' longing for a less complex, more coherent time. Joseph Hurka, a writing professor at Tufts University and Emerson College in Boston, said people are turning to other periods for direction.

"In a time of terror, there's a yearning to move back to some simplicity, something certain," said Mr. Hurka, who has written a book on his father.

Miss Kalish frequently returns to visit family in Iowa, where the landscape is still beautiful and populated with warm people. However, some trends worry her — factory farms, pesticides and the deteriorating water quality.

"There's much to be happy about and there's much to be extremely sad about, and I don't know what the outcome of this is going to be," she says.


Tags: books Iowa memoirs news writing