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

by Mildred Armstrong Kalish

Paperback, 2008




Bantam (2008), Edition: Reprint, 292 pages


I tell of a time, a place, and a way of life long gone. For many years I have had the urge to describe that treasure trove, lest it vanish forever. So, partly in response to the basic human instinct to share feelings and experiences, and partly for the sheer joy and excitement of it all, I report on my early life. It was quite a romp. So begins Mildred Kalish's story of growing up on her grandparents' Iowa farm during the depths of the Great Depression. With her father banished from the household for mysterious transgressions, five-year-old Mildred and her family could easily have been overwhelmed by the challenge of simply trying to survive. This, however, is not a tale of suffering. Kalish counts herself among the lucky of that era. She had caring grandparents who possessed--and valiantly tried to impose--all the pioneer virtues of their forebears, teachers who inspired and befriended her, and a barnyard full of animals ready to be tamed and loved. She and her siblings and their cousins from the farm across the way played as hard as they worked, running barefoot through the fields, as free and wild as they dared. Filled with recipes and how-tos for everything from catching and skinning a rabbit to preparing homemade skin and hair beautifiers, apple cream pie, and the world's best head cheese (start by scrubbing the head of the pig until it is pink and clean), Little Heathens portrays a world of hardship and hard work tempered by simple rewards. There was the unsurpassed flavor of tender new dandelion greens harvested as soon as the snow melted; the taste of crystal clear marble-sized balls of honey robbed from a bumblebee nest; the sweet smell from the body of a lamb sleeping on sun-warmed grass; and the magical quality of oat shocking under the light of a full harvest moon. Little Heathens offers a loving but realistic portrait of a "hearty-handshake Methodist" family that gave its members a remarkable legacy of kinship, kindness, and remembered pleasures. Recounted in a luminous narrative filled with tenderness and humor, Kalish's memoir of her childhood shows how the right stuff can make even the bleakest of times seem like "quite a romp."… (more)


½ (246 ratings; 3.6)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Stbalbach
Little Heathens is a near anthropological survey of life on a small family farm in Iowa during the 1930's, when there was no electricity, running water, bathrooms and very few if any "store bought" goods. It is today a world foreign in this age of convenience and Millie laments the loss of the
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"rich store of knowledge that had been bestowed on us by life on that simple farm," and the self-confidence and self-reliance it fostered. It's odd that this simple little memoir - nothing more than an elder grandparent retelling what life was like "when I was young" - has struck a chord with so many readers, it is one of the New York Times 10 most notable books of 2007. The Times attributes its success in part because so many memoirs today are about unsavory people doing scandalous things, it is a relief to read about a real person going about a "normal" life (if such a thing exists), someone you'd like to have as a relative or friend, or even to walk in her shoes (when she wore any). Partly it is Millie herself who is humble, sincere and likable.

But it is also, I believe, about bigger current day issues: Global Warming, Peak Oil, Recessions, high food prices and other man-made slow motion train wrecks have many questioning if society is on the right track and naturally many are looking back to the past for answers. A return to the country, simplicity, slow pace of life, the values of thrift, honor and tradition are finding wides audiences in modern forms, such as organics, slow food, alternative energy. They say when you reach a certain age "everything old is new again" and Millies account of the 1930s is finding a lot of interest in these times. It's a beautiful book of substance and simplicity, I recommend it highly.
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LibraryThing member sriemann
This reminded me of the books I am reading by Alice Taylor about her childhood in rural Ireland. I wish there were more books like this about how things were done before the advent of so much machinery, industrialism, and big agri-business. The author doesn't gloss over how hard things were,
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though, and make things sound like everything was perfect - there are definitely areas that needed machinery to help ease the farmers' burden of work. Also, from my point of view having some machinery involved released the pressure to have lots of children to help work the farm. But, the chapters about the different ways things were saved and reused, working in connection with nature to plant and harvest, those contained knowledge that should be disseminated in agriculture classes, if only to see the differences now and then.
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LibraryThing member NotSunkYet
When reading this book I felt that the author was right there reading it to me.
LibraryThing member kwkslvr
I loved this narrative! It strongly reminded me of my own childhood during the 60s in small-town Iowa.
LibraryThing member mrtall
Memoirs have been hot in the past decade or two, so you might look at Mildred Kalish's Little Heathens and think, meh, just another long-winded whine about the horrible childhood someone can't shut up about.

This would be unfortunate. For although Kalish has fodder aplenty for a typical contemporary
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memoir -- a no-good/absent dad; raised by strict Christian grandparents and a sometimes vague mom in the abject poverty and rural isolation of Depression-era Iowa -- she instead writes what I think is more properly termed a 'reminiscence'. Kalish systematically loots and lays out her extremely detailed memories of the era, in straightforward, sometimes elegant prose, with a minimum of complaint and an overarching generosity of spirit.

The result is remarkably refreshing. Kalish loved her childhood, values it, and wants the best of it to be known to others. Little Heathens is therefore the opposite of a self-indulgence; it's a gift.

And as an Iowan myself, I will close by putting in a good word for my homeland: Kalish's loving attention to the landscape, flora and fauna of an oft-overlooked state is an added bonus.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member emitnick
Life on a farm and in a tiny town in Iowa in the 30's. Kalish is funny, straight-forward, and down-to-earth, the perfect person to tell us about her childhood, which was absolutely packed with work, from farmwork to housework. Somehow, the kids managed to have a huge amount of fun regardless - they
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were the "little heathens" of the title. My grandpa grew up on what might have been a similar farm - I think I understand him a little better now. Hugely entertaining read.
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LibraryThing member kreativiT
I enjoyed this book a lot. While the setting is the Great Depression, I think any one who grew up on a farm will find some familiar things. I love that the book includes favorite recipes as well as remembrances and plan on trying a few. I will pass this along to other family members and I'm sure
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they will enjoy it as well.
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LibraryThing member Diana1952
I just love this one. Though this story occurs a couple of decades before my childhood in Iowa, I can certainly relate to some of the details in this book. Great book, well written. Makes me wish I could go back to a much simpler and happier time.
LibraryThing member PuddinTame
I was really expecting this to be interesting. As it is, I would have given it two stars, except that I feel it has value as a social history. This is the sort of thing that would be a treasure for a family, and belongs in Iowan history collections. I don't really understand why it was published,
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let alone so well received. My opinion of of the New York Times's literary taste was not enhanced.

This is occasionally interesting, but at times fragments into a mishmash of scattered reminisces, and was at times so boring that only the fact that I was reading it for a book club kept me going. I also found the author's smug self-satisfaction off-putting. Does the frugal upbringing of which she so frequently boasts explain why she drove a basic, economical car like a Cadillac? Armstrong never does deal with the disconnect between her happy memories of the past, and the fact that she ran from that life as fast as she could. I often wondered as I read this if she is very disappointed in her children and grandchildren, as she tells us about her uplifting childhood that is so different from "kids today". Perhaps that explains a nostalgia for a life she didn't care to live as an adult. Otherwise, I guess she is just a nostalgia bore, like so many people, wanting to see a golden age in the past that apparently wasn't all that pleasant at the time.
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LibraryThing member Beth350
A semi-interesting account of a childhood on an Iowa farm during the late 1920's and 1930's. Filled with details, but not terribly well written.
LibraryThing member satyridae
Charming memoir of a hardscrabble girlhood in Iowa during the Great Depression. Pure, clear and delightful. Recommended.
LibraryThing member sharlene_w
I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Ruth Ann Phimister read the audio version of this book. It was like listening to the author herself regale me with tales of her childhood. Little Heathens discloses everything you wanted to know about life in the 30s but your grandmother (or mother) didn't get
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around to telling you herself. I finally learned exactly how they managed to use the pages of the Sears catalog in the outhouse and the facts of life as gleaned from observance and eavesdropping, as no one spoke of such delicate matters back then. I also enjoyed reading about farm food and how they readied a chicken (and countless other items) for the dinner table. Mildred Kalish's gift for writing is like a time machine--it takes you back to rural Iowa in the 1930s with all its sights and sounds. A humorous and lively read.
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LibraryThing member mojomomma
I love local history and I really enjoyed this book. The author describes her childhood when she spent winters and springs in town with her grandparents to attend school and summers on the family farm. She goes into great detail about everyday life on the farm. As I read this, I was transported to
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my grandparents farm in rural Iowa and I certainly recognized their philosophy and mindset in Kalish's writing. Reading this book was like a glimpse into my own family.
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LibraryThing member brsquilt
About the growing up on a farm in Iowa during the Depression (1930's). Very nostalgic and fun to read.
LibraryThing member MystiqueWillow
Little Heathens : Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm during the Great Depression

For months, I passed the shelf at the book store on which this book sat. I mean, I picked it up occasionally, I read the blurb on the back, and then I would stare at the front as if waiting for a sign to buy
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it. Finally, I would set it back on the shelf from whence it came. It might look like a deliciously interesting piece of literature, but it had the distinct smell of a history book in disguise. Everyone knows the books of which I speak, the ones that lure you in with the promises of a rich and colorful glimpse at history and then turn out to be nothing more than a glorified textbook. Yeah those books. Well, I was determined not to have another one of “those books” polluting my bookshelf. So, I took a stand and refused to buy it, until the day I gave in and bought it. What can I say? I have an addiction.

Once the book was purchased reading it became my number one priority. After all, I wanted to prove to myself that no matter how seductive the book seemed to be, it was really a textbook knock off. I read the whole book front to back, and from it I drew two conclusions. Number one: I was absolutely right the book was a deliciously interesting piece of nonfiction literature. Number two: a little bit of simple goes a long, long way.

Mildred Armstrong Kalish, a retired English professor, is the person responsible for this well-written, vividly colorful account of the Great Depression. She writes from her own experience of being a child and growing up on a farm, an Iowa farm nonetheless, during the Great Depression. Talk about interesting, this book is a mind blower. Anyone who has ever wished that life was a little bit simpler, a little bit friendlier, or little bit more carefree needs to buy this book and read it.

Chapter by chapter, this book sucks you in and takes you back to times long passed and forgotten. This book will teach you how to catch a raccoon and turn it into a pet, tell you about customs that have long since died out, like the gifting and receiving of “May Baskets,” and even let you in on why there were two toilet seats in the outhouse instead of one. You’ll get directions on how to build a “Never-Fail” fire, how to get the most out of an egg, and how to get rid of a boil using a beet.

The book provides a small wealth of recipes for the home cook. I’ve made several of them and they have all been delicious. My favorite is the recipe for “Cabbage Salad,” although it is more like a coleslaw; I made it for New Years and everybody loved it. A couple examples of other recipes offered are Corn Oysters and Applesauce Cake.

The book provides more than a glimpse at what it was like to do laundry back then, the amount of work that went into keeping a farm, and how leisure time was spent by everyone from the children to the men. The book also provides a variety of common home remedies, from curing a cough to curing blood poisoning.

Each chapter of the book provides a window to a specific aspect of life during the Great Depression. Separated, the chapters are amazing, astounding, and delightful; together, they join seamlessly to provide an uplifting account of life during a difficult and trying time. The book is rich and colorful in its detail and story-telling yet still maintains its historical integrity. It is the perfect novel. If you could only read one novel this year, I would highly advise reading this one. This book will remain at the very top of my bookshelf forever. Happy Reading!!
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LibraryThing member mamashepp
It was hard for me to believe this was written by a retired English professor. There was a lot of great Depression-era information in the book as well as some great anecdotes but I found that it dragged and was not very well arranged.
LibraryThing member kmaziarz
With notable warmth and fondness, Kalish recalls growing up on a working farm during the Great Depression. Her memoir captures all of the joy and hardship of the times and of a traditional lifestyle that has been lost in the present day. Her lifestyle was frugal in the extreme, her days were filled
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with hard work, very strict schedules, and austere conditions, and money was never abundant. Yet somehow, Kalish’s memoir is neither bitter nor self-indulgent, but seems to have been written out of pure affection for her childhood. Her stories are recounted in a loose, conversational tone addressed directly to the author and each incident recounted following naturally from another. Reading this book, you might just feel like you’re sitting at the knee of an elderly and talkative relative, and listening intently. Her language is straightforward and unvarnished, but powerful and well-suited to the memories recounted. “Little Heathens” may make us all wish for a simpler time!
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LibraryThing member mahallett
Nytimes--1 of 10 best books of the year
A good story of life on a farm in the 30s and 40s. She's a positive person and saw her experiences positively.
LibraryThing member periwinklejane
My mom grew up on a farm in Minnesota during the depression. I heard a lot of stories from her about family and working on the farm.

I thought it would be fun to read a story about someone else who grew up on a Midwest farm during the depression. Little Heathens is a lot like my mom talking - a
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bunch of reminiscences strung together, but no real story line.

I'm not saying it's not good, because the writing is perfectly sweet, the stories are completely charming and the characters are well drawn. It's just that this was too much like listening to my mom. I kept waiting for Armstrong-Kalish to throw in an aside about my weight, or how I could keep my ceiling fan cleaner. I had to put it aside because I just couldn't stand the nagging between the lines.
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LibraryThing member Daniel.Estes
Little Heathens is a charming, salt-of-the-earth memoir by retired English professor Mildred Armstrong Kalish that is kindly generous with more tales of high spirits than of hard times. Still, growing up on an Iowa farm during the Great Depression was no comfort by most measures.

Listening to this
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audiobook reminded me of my own grandmother, the seventeenth of seventeen siblings, who also grew up during 1930's in the nearby state of Missouri. And according to her, modest as ever, stories from her childhood are of little interest to anyone. After learning about Kalish's blessed life, I respectfully disagree.
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LibraryThing member jerry-book
Excellent prtrayal of an Iowa childhood as lived by my parents.
LibraryThing member TheMadHatters
This book was semi-interesting. It's technically an adult non-fiction book, but I found it on a list of adult books for teens. I'm always interested in true stories about people overcoming adversity, but the problem with this one was that there wasn't much adversity. I picked it up expecting
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something totally different. Yes, this woman's childhood took place during the Great Depression, but her family was relatively wealthy and self-sufficient. Also, the writing was not great.
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LibraryThing member Jillian_Kay
The author doesn't hold anything back in this description of Iowa farm life in the 20's.
LibraryThing member kaitanya64
Many have written memoirs of the Depression in the rural midwest and while this book has gained great popularity, I think it is a poor example of the genre. The writer spends too much time preaching about how hard her childhood was compared to that of her children and grandchildren and how cushy we
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all have it. If you want a good memoir, try "A Nickle for a Bucket of Milk" or "We Have All Gone Away." Harder to find, but touching rather than whiny.
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LibraryThing member reader1009
nonfiction/memoirs (growing up on Iowa farm in 1930s). Some chapters I skimmed, but it was all pretty interesting--especially the home remedies and cooking secrets (have to try baking powder in the mashed potatoes for extra fluffiness; also will soon be adding fresh pan-fried potatoes to my weekend
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Great Lakes Book Award (Finalist — General Nonfiction — 2008)


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

292 p.; 5.5 inches


0553384244 / 9780553384246
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