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


One of the books I read recently was Little Heathens:  Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression by Mildred Armstrong Kalish.   It’s a series of disjointed chapters about various aspects of her childhood in rural Iowa during the depression.   The book has been out for a few years, but I stumbled upon it this fall in the gift shop of Seed Savers’ Exchange and put it on my to-read list.    The other day I posted something about reading about the siege of Leningrad and how I think it’s a good idea to read historical/actual accounts of people coping with hard times in order to get ideas and stimulate your brain a little bit.   I can assure you that I got more out of this book than I did any of the fiction ones involving a karate expert with a heart of gold navigating a post-apocolyptic world.

This book was like talking to grandma (coincidentally my grandma did grow up on a farm in Iowa during the depression!) but maybe after a few drinks.  I’m not sure if this will make sense, but Kalish tells her story in a heartfelt manner yet at the same time she’s not caught up in being too sentimental.   By that I mean that she seems very honest.   She’s not writing a yarn about walking to school uphill in a blizzard both ways or pining about “the good ol’ days”.    I didn’t get the impression that there were any tall tales in the book.   She wrote about some of the hardships her family faced, some of the good times they had and most importantly, some of the routine things in their daily lives that often get lost in history between the yarns about how bad things were or good ol’ days recollections.

One example of the everyday things she writes about is the subject of cussing back then, a subject near and dear to my heart.    Although I’ve wondered about how people talked to each other in their day-to-day lives, I was never able to muster the courage to say “Hey, Grandma, did you guys ever say ‘fuck’ back then?”.   Now I know.    Another similar subject is outhouse usage and toilet humor of the day.   Kalish is very frank and vivid in her recollections of daily life during her childhood and leaves the reader with few questions unanswered.

The book is entertaining.   She’s a good storyteller and has some good anecdotes about the depression and life back then.   Although the book wasn’t meant to be a how-to manual, I think it has a ton of value in the way of passing on bits of folkish wisdom that have been obscured by the good times between the depression and today.   I checked the book out from the library, but I’ll probably end up buying a cheap used copy of the book so I can go through and highlight some stuff for future reference.

I’ll throw out some examples of stuff I’ve learned – so as part of  13 in 2013, I’m planning on tracking down at least five new wild edibles and using them.   Kalish talks about going after ground cherries and how they used them.   So now I know that they really are in my part of the world and I have an idea on how to use them when/if I find them.   While I didn’t buy the book from SSE’s gift store when I initially thumbed through it, I did pick up a pack of ground cherry seeds (among a lot of other stuff).   Maybe I’ll do a bit of guerrilla gardening?  She also talked about dandelion greens, wild fruits and nuts and the kinds of things they would do with them.   Foraging was an important part of their lives.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve had problems making yogurt.   Kalish mentioned that they used to set their yogurt on top of the stove in order to stimulate the bacteria.   I had a duh moment when I read this.   The other day I tried making yogurt again and ended up with a great batch of it.   I put it on a heater vent and then a warm stove.  It had it setting in no time.   I looked at the recipe I’ve been using and notice that it says “put in a warm place”.  I’ve been just counting on room temperature being good enough.   So I think I’ve got that one down now.

There’s a ton of stuff about cooking and the things they ate.   Simple, hearty and economical foods in tune with the seasons and what they had available.   No one ever talks about Midwestern fare or writes it off as being bland and boring, but it’s based on necessity.   They needed foods they could produce on-site or store in bulk that would give them enough energy to go about their daily tasks, often in cold weather.    It’s probably not a good idea to start your day with ham, eggs and biscuits and then roast with potatoes a few hours later for lunch if you’re sitting at a desk from 9-5, but it makes a lot of sense if you’re engaged in physical labor all day.   Most of the recipes given would have a lot of conventional dieters freaking out, but I imagine their rates of obesity were pretty low back then.

I also learned a few important tips on chopping down trees.   As a kid I had about an acre or two patch of woods behind me and my only experience with chopping down trees was the time we took down a small maple with a hammer and a small section of rusty iron bar.   Kalish gives a few valuable tips that novice apsiring lumberjacks might overlook.

The chapter on how frugal they were was pretty impressive.   One example was that when they would wear out a pair of socks, they would darn them up and pass them down to the next smallest person to the point where a pair of socks would last through several owners.   The ankle part of the sock usually doesn’t wear out, it’s usually just the toes and heel.   The “hoarder” mentality is common enough among today’s elderly, but when you think about how many of them grew up with the “make do or do without” mentality of the Great Depression you can see how that can happen.   Especially when you consider how in today’s climate we assume that things will be worn out and tossed away and a lot of things are cheap and plentiful.

I got a chuckle out of a part where she mentions that her family were “hearty-handshake Methodists”, meaning that they frowned upon things like hugging or other physical or verbal public displays of affection.   I’ve got a little bit of this background and I’m notorious for being awkward with hugging and uncomfortable with things like hand holding and other such indulgences.   It’s kind of funny for me to see this in writing.

I found this book really cool.   Not only was it entertaining, it was full of a ton of useful stuff.   I think that anyone interested in homesteading, basic skills, self-reliance, traditional Americana, agrarianism, frugality, preparedness, rustic cooking and probably a dozen or so other niche markets would get something out of this book.   I’m glad that Kalish unflinchingly shared her story with the world so that all these little details on daily life wouldn’t get lost.

In addition to this book I’m currently reading The Grapes of Wrath.   Somehow I made it through high school and college (with a liberal arts major) without reading this.  I’m about halfway through it and really enjoying it.   I also ordered a depression-era cookbook from a lady that had a series of popular YouTube videos on the kinds of things they ate back then.  I posted one of her videos last year, it’s worth checking out (link).   I wouldn’t be surprised if I post some more things about the Great Depression in the coming month or so.

One Second After by William Forstchen

I finished this one a few days ago.   It’s about an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attack on the United States and its’ effect on one small town in North Carolina.

I came into this book with some very high expectations.   I had heard that the book was very personal for the author and often just writing the material forced him into tears.   I also heard that it had that effect on most of the people who read it, just because it was so uncomfortable and gut-wrenching.    The inside cover flap of the book starts the description of the story with something about the US losing a war, which is a shocking scenario, but completely plausible under the circumstances of the story.

I’m not a fan of Newt Gingrich, but I have to admit that the foreword by him does lend the book some credibility, making me believe that Forstchen is a well-connected guy and privy to a lot of information and viewpoints on the subject of EMP warfare.   The afterword is done by Captain Bill Sanders, USN that discusses the real threat of an EMP attack.   I believe that this subject is something the author has some authority on and has definitely put some thought into.  

 He peppers the book with laments about how we as a society never took the right steps to put measures in place to deal with an EMP attack when it would’ve been easy.   I think Forstchen really set out to sound the alarm to raise awareness of our vulnerability over just wanting to write a book about a doomsday scenario.   In some of these kinds of books it seems like the author just wants to write about a SHTF scenario (and there’s nothing wrong with that) and the “how” part of it gets lost in the story.   Although there’s more to it than just the EMP attack, the idea of the EMP sticks with the reader throughout the story.

After writing that book about Red Dawn, my mind was definitely in that zone when I read this and I picked up on a handful of subtle and maybe unconscious references to the film in the book.   I think the two are similar in the sense that they both put the idea of American invincibility to the test and show the reader a world where we’re on the losing end.   Between the Soviet invasion of Red Dawn and the EMP attack in One Second After, guess which one is actually 100% feasible?  

I think one major strength of this book is that he covers in-depth two aspects of TEOTWAWKI scenarios that often get glossed over:  pets and our health system.   Coincidentially, the fate of the pets of the town and the scenes involving our fragile health care system are some of the most harrowing scenes I’ve read, especially the nursing home scene.    The character of Jennifer (the youngest daughter) was a 12-year-old type I diabetic and modeled after Forstchen’s own diabetic daughter.   He dwells on medical issues such as the shortage of medicines, lack of staff, lack of power to run machines and poor sanitation quite a bit in the book and I suspect that’s his way of addressing his own family’s vulnerability.   I guess insulin has to be kept refrigerated, which is another problem when you have no electricity.   At any rate, I would say that this book is the best book of it’s kind I’ve read in the way of addressing what kinds of danger lurks in a post-SHTF medical system.

Another strength of the book is that I think most of the characters are more or less believable.   I know there’s a tendency in this genre to make the protagonist a bad-ass karate master with a heart of gold, but in this case the protagonist (John Matherson) is fairly reasonable.   He’s a former Colonel in the Army and a college professor.  He describes his time in service as being mostly academic and he’s not gifted with the ability to construct explosives out of household materials, kill people with his bare hands, etc.  

I also don’t think that anything in the book (off hand) was particularly sugar coated and the author’s assessment on how things would look is very pragmatic.    I think that’s a plus.

The book had some weaknesses.   I think a lot of the teary-eyed “my country ’tis of thee” moments were a little goofy, but after thinking about it a little more, maybe that really would be how people would react?   People do get sentimental for the past in hard times, that’s for sure.

 I also thought that some of the historical references thrown in there had the aura of “hey, look what I know!”, but then again the author is a military historian and the main character was something similar.

I would have liked a little more about the day-to-day lives of the post-EMP people, like what they ate and did but then again I understand that this book is more about raising the threat of an EMP than writing about a dystopian world.

The ending is also pretty damn typical of these kinds of books.  I’m not even sure if there’s a good way around this anymore.   At any rate, I thought it was worthwhile to read based on the fact it brings up some very uncomfortable ideas that don’t get a lot of talk in the world of preparedness and survival.    I’m going to stock up on some more dog food and try to keep myself out of the hospital.



Currency Wars: The Making of the Next Global Crisis by James Rickards


I recently had a chance to read Currency Wars:  The Making of the Next Global Crisis by James Rickards and highly recommend it.   In short, Rickards describes some of the weaknesses in our economic system, describes the historical precedent for conflicts over currencies, discusses some ongoing currency conflicts and offers some speculation on potential scenarios involving the US dollar.    Some of the material will be old news for people who follow contrarian economics, but Rickards brings in a unique perspective towards the state of currencies in the world.

A few things I took away from the book:

–  Conflicts aren’t always fought with arms and economic ones can be just as crippling.

–  We’ve got the biggest, baddest military in the world but economic wars could be our Achilles heel.    The author gives a chilling account of war games that he participated in with the Department of Defense and how catastrophic the results could be.

–  Historically economic disputes have led to armed hostilities.   Bad news all around.

–  Currencies have historically come and gone on the planet and their value goes with it, unless the currency has intrinsic value (i.e. silver and gold).    For example, you can’t buy anything in Paris with pre-euro French francs – they have no value.   A 20 franc gold coin is made of slightly less than 1/5 of an ounce of gold and currently has more value due to the gold than the francs ever did.   As I recently wrote in Saving Copper Pennies, pre-1982 pennies will have intrinsic value as copper that will transcends the value of the one cent assigned to it by the US Government should the US ever dissolve.    I’m not going to suggest that gold, silver and copper are the end-all-be-all of money (although they are pretty cool and worth investing in), but I feel a little bit safer with something tangible over just having paper and an agreement.     If you don’t think that it’s possible for states (as well as their currencies) come and go on this planet, watch this.

–  Rickards points out that there can be downturns with stocks or bonds, inflation, depression, etc. with one or more of our economic system chugging along just fine.  The currency is the common denominator in all of these factors and potentially our weak link.

–  Our national debt is the elephant in the room that no one wants to discuss, let alone tackle, in a meaningful manner.

–  The cover art is pretty sweet.  Take a closer look:

–  The kind of economic calamity described in the book is out of my hands (and yours), but we can build our lives in a way that if/when this thing happens, we’ve got some protection.   This involves finding your own income streams, producing your own food, storing food and supplies, reducing your debt, smart financial management, building community and general self-reliance. I’ll share what I know and what I learn along the way on this blog.