Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


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








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Memoirs often present readers with two insights: ways in which others have had the same experience as ours, and ways in which the lives of others are different. For all readers of Mildred Armstrong Kalish’s memoir, Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression, both insights abound. I think more people lived on my block in Brooklyn than Kalish would see in a year in her Iowa town, and the sounds and activities that filled her days are foreign to me. But her vivacity, insights into relationships and the ways in which she describes the values that formed her character were all very familiar to me, and I loved reading every page. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 9, “Medicine,” pp. 92-95:


Since professional medical care was all but absent from our lives, children as well as adults knew a great deal about home remedies. If, for example, one of us kids was attacked by bees of one kind or another—stings from wild honeybees, bumblebees, yellow jackets, sweat bees, and hornets were a regular part of life on our farm—we all knew enough to apply baking soda, black mud, or earwax to relieve the excruciating pain. If we developed a canker sore on a tongue we knew just the thing to do: Harvest a green pepper from the garden, chew it well, but don’t swallow it. The chewed pepper relieved the smarting pain in an instant. We still resort to this instant cure when anyone gets a mouth sore. In the wintertime when we lived in Garrison and there were no green vegetables, we used a crystal of alum to relieve canker sores, but green peppers taste better than alum and I’ll take the green pepper cure over alum any day.

Perhaps because of our storehouse of knowledge, parents were remarkably complacent about all the injuries that were a routine part of the lives of free-range farm children—cuts from knives (which even six-year-old kids routinely incurred), stone bruises caused by bare feet on rocks, blood blisters, and all the bloody, oozing scrapes on knees, arms, elbows, and thighs. When one of us kids received a scratch, cut, or puncture, we didn’t run to the house to be taken care of. Nobody would have been interested. We just went to the barn or the corncrib, found a spiderweb, and wrapped the stretchy filament around the wound. It stopped the bleeding and the pain, and was thought to have antiseptic quali­ties. Generally, healing occurred without further attention. Skin has got to be one of God’s greatest creations.

We took care of ourselves for more serious injuries, too. Every home in our area had Vaseline, lard, baking soda, boric acid, salt, camphor, alum peroxide, Vicks, Mentholatum, tincture of iodine, and, some few years later, Mercurochrome. The peroxide may have been the most commonly used of these remedies. Because we went barefoot all summer it was not unusual to suffer cuts from double-bitted axes, broken glass, barbed wire, or rusty nails. If we got cut or stepped on a nail, we “bubbled the poison out” by pouring a bit of peroxide on it, and it usually healed in a cou­ple of days. Local lore also maintained that a chaw of tobacco applied to a deep cut could draw out the poison. We sought relief from the painful throbbing of stone bruises by soaking the foot in extremely hot water twice a day. But there was nothing to do about blood blisters. They just disappeared by themselves, though they were sometimes painful for a very long time. It was a miracle that none of us kids ever broke a bone, and we rarely developed life-threatening infections.

One truly frightening day out in Yankee Grove, when my brother slashed his leg with a glancing blow of his ax, I saw my grandfather burn his handkerchief to get fresh charcoal to apply to the cut to stop the bleeding. Grandpa did one of his horses that same courtesy when the animal got fearfully entangled in some barbed wire and suffered deep wounds in his fetlock. Not one of us ever received a tetanus shot, though for a couple of weeks one summer we discussed, in appropriately funereal tones, the death of a neighbor’s horse from lockjaw. The animal developed the infection from a barbed wire injury and had to be put down.

I myself developed a quite serious infection one summer. I remember whimpering all night, half awake and half asleep, from a fearful pain coming from the toe pad beneath my big toe and the one next to it. When I showed it to Mama the next morning, she responded in an uncharacteristic manner. She actually sprang into action. Pointing to a distinct red line running from between my toes almost up to my knee, she diagnosed blood poisoning. Did she call a doctor? No. In a trice, she poured boiling water into the white enameled foot pan and, once it had cooled somewhat, had me soak my foot for a very long time. When she was satisfied that the stone bruise was soft enough, she used a razor blade to cut a tiny gash deep into the tough, swollen, bluish area, until lots of bloody pus oozed out. The pain diminished immediately. With that she poured the ubiquitous, all-purpose peroxide on it, and wrapped my foot in a bandage made from worn-out white sheets or shirts. After several days of soaks followed by the deft use of the razor blade to keep the wound open and a post-nick flush of peroxide, the red streak gradually disappeared.

During that period, I was a bit of a celebrity, for blood poison­ing was something that Big Kids and Little Kids alike knew was a serious enough matter to warrant the attention of adults. Fur­ther, I had the distinction of being granted official layabout sta­tus. In a family where Industriousness was second only to Godliness, this was a highly desirable state, and I had come by it honestly. Had I been suffering as a result of a gluttonous indul­gence in green apples or a casual disregard of an unstable pile of wood, such carelessness would have elicited no solicitousness whatsoever. But this condition was not my fault. By common consent of the adults, I was exempt from all chores and all fam­ily responsibilities, and was permitted to reign in the high-backed rocking chair in the kitchen and read to my heart’s content. My enforced sloth was the envy of all of the kids.

Many of the home remedies that were the order of the day came from a thick, heavy book called the People’s Home Library, an impressive compendium of lore on the treatment and medica­tion of people and livestock, and on domestic science or cooking and household management. Now in an exceedingly dilapidated condition, it has been in our family since 1920, and is currently in my possession.

In almost any gathering of women, some part of the conversa­tion focused on a debate about the various remedies. Was the best sassafras tea made from the bark, the root, or the actual wood of the tree? Should the onions for a chest poultice be baked or fried? And which would draw a splinter out the quickest—the delicate membrane from the inside of an eggshell, or a piece of salt pork?

Much discussion was devoted to the efficacy of the popular patent medicines. I recall several: Carter’s Little Liver Pills, Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets, Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery and Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. All of these creations were praised and widely used. A search in the People’s Home Library yielded the formula for Lydia Pinkham’s concoction. Among other things, it calls for partridge berry vine, cassia, cramp and poplar bark, unicorn root, sugar, and alcohol.


For some readers, the recipes alone are reason enough to read Little Heathens, for others it will be a nostalgic recollection of times past. Even for those of us with no connection to Iowa or the Depression, Little Heathens will bring fine reading pleasure and good insight into the formation of sound character.


Steve Hopkins, August 25, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the September 2007 issue of Executive Times


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