Classic review: Little Heathens

Mildred Armstrong Kalish's new memoir offers a warm-hearted retelling of life on a Depression-era Iowa farm.

Little Heathens By Mildred Armstrong Kalish Bantam 304 pp., $12

[The Monitor sometimes reprints material from its archives. This review originally ran on Aug. 3, 2007.] Mildred Armstrong Kalish was 5-years-old the last time she saw her dad. Her family was forced to move in with her puritanical grandparents (who kept a buggy whip handy). Cash was almost nonexistent. Oh, and it was the Great Depression.

So how does the author of Little Heathens look back on those Iowa years? "I have come to view that time as a gift," she writes in her generous-hearted new memoir.

She includes recipes, home remedies, and advice on how to butcher poultry, but you won't find a whine from beginning to end.

"It was quite a romp," she writes. A cheerful attitude invigorates "Little Heathens" (as her grandmother called the kids) and gives it an air as clean as laundry pulled off the line.

For those of us who have never brought in hay, sown potatoes, or killed our own dinner, the book will make you realize how easy life in the US has become. (The list of chores for the "big kids" would bring me to my knees.)

But the children got to run barefoot, raise baby raccoons, and sneak secret rides on their uncle's unbroken colts.

Kalish's love of nature pervades every page, and her ethos of hard work and self-discipline will have you itching put up some tomatoes and try out her recipe for homemade marshmallows.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction and memoirs for the Monitor.

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