The Greatest Generation

This may turn out to be my first book report in about a decade. Luckily, I don’t have to stand in front of the class stumbling over reading it with a garbled speed while my cheeks turn red. (I was never very good at speaking in front of people.) I hope I get an A. *fingers crossed*

Read it.

Little Heathens is Mildred Armstrong Kalish’s story of growing up on an Iowa farm during the Great Depression. I read it for the first time last year. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it (plus, it has some good recipes in it). The official title is Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression. That really sums up the whole book.

They grew their own food. They planted it, maintained it, and harvested it. Once the harvesting was done, they prepared it. They knew all the ways to keep it from spoiling and all the different ways to utilize it in a recipe or meal. They didn’t think food just came from the grocery store. They didn’t eat artificially flavored or “produced in a laboratory” foods. They knew what they were putting in their bodies.

They used outhouses. They didn’t have running water. They pumped it out of the ground and had to carry it into the house. They didn’t have electricity, nor central heating. They were at the mercy of the elements and the seasons. They didn’t think an inconvenience was when the cable went out.

Their education (outside of school) and leisure time were intertwined much of the time. Stories by the older relatives and books were teaching tools but a great form of entertainment as well. The world was their playground. They were physically active, outside playing in nature. They entertained themselves. They used their imaginations! They didn’t have game consoles, cell phones, or elaborate toys.

They had chores and had a part in keeping the farm and the family successful and surviving. They were disciplined, they were taught manners, and they were expected to endure the consequences of their actions. They were not treated as the center of the universe, they were not coddled, and they weren’t allowed to get away with being whiny and ungrateful. I always wonder when boundaries, manners, teaching coping skills, and taking responsibility for one’s actions became frowned upon and “out-dated.”

I would say that she and people of the time knew what sacrifice was, and they did, but it was more just the life they knew. It amazes me how whiny people are today. The Great Recession in 2008 hit and a lot of people had serious problems and had to sacrifice, but a whole other group had to make “sacrifices,” as well. “Boohoo, I have to cancel my HD service.” “I can only afford one case of bottled water a week instead of two.” “Oh, my huge SUV takes so much gas to fill up.” I’m pretty sure most people don’t know what real sacrifices are.

I won’t lie, I probably wouldn’t do very well living the 1920s-30s farm life. I grew up in Kansas in the country in the middle of nowhere, next to my grandparents’ farm. I even remember things like potato digging, corn picking and shucking, chicken slaughtering, and strawberry/cherry/walnut pickings and gatherings. (I didn’t personally do any slaughtering, but I was definitely present.) However, these things were not chores or necessities for me to perform to keep life going, they were more the fun things I got to witness or help with while spending time with my grandparents or when family would gather specifically to do these things. While I’m not afraid of getting dirty or doing some hard work, I would probably whine about having to do at least some of the things Kalish talks about in her book.

Part of my grandparents’ farm.

I suppose this is part of the reason why her generation is called The Greatest Generation. They worked hard, were selfless, knew how to take care of themselves, were resourceful, and knew how to survive. And pretty much all without complaining. It was life. It was hard. You did what you had to do. You survived. And you found fun, enjoyment, and the goodness in between the hardships. Those children grew up to make this country the most prosperous country. They didn’t think they were too good for certain work. They didn’t think they were above getting dirty or making due with whatever they could scrape together. They did what needed to be done. Plain and simple.

I think you still see some of this here and there, but it’s quite rare. It’s especially noticeable in the Midwest. (Maybe I’m biased having grown up in Kansas and went to college in Iowa.) People seem to know more about what hard work is and life is a bit simpler, but not in a bad way. It’s about living, family, and providing. It’s not necessarily about cars and big houses, or designer labels, or the hustle-bustle. It’s a place I feel privileged to have grown up in (even as much as I make fun of it). I’m also grateful to have spent four years in Iowa in a very small town (about an hour, actually, from where her book takes place) with some of the nicest people around. I wouldn’t change my childhood or my college years for anything. I feel like, even though I didn’t want to stay there, it gave me the foundation to be an intelligent, compassionate, driven person. No matter where I end up geographically or otherwise, I have the core values and perspective to do what needs to be done, to take care of myself, and get more out of life than any of the superficial. *stepping off of soapbox*

I think people could learn some very good lessons (and not just recipes) from Little Heathens. I think a quote from Mildred Kalish, while talking about the book, gives a great insight.

“I have noticed a resurgence of public interest in the rural matters where people yearn to engage in satisfying activities that have direct meaning in their lives. Perhaps this is because our current national and international challenges result in individuals feeling helpless and disconnected. My book tells of a life of total involvement. I thought many readers would enjoy reading about that experience.”

While it’s true the economic crisis has made people feel helpless and disconnected, we do that to ourselves as well. We barely do anything for ourselves, machines or hiring other people is how we get things done. We decide TV is so important we must pay hundreds of dollars a month for it, and must record everything. We barely have attention spans or imaginations anymore. People barely take pride in the things they create or do with their own hands. We disconnect from others by logging onto a computer incessantly (as I write this blog!).

I guess this isn’t so much a book report, so I probably don’t get an A, but the book was definitely a springboard of wanting to talk about this mentality people used to have. It wasn’t about “me me me,” it wasn’t all about being “better” than some else, and it wasn’t about how much money could be amassed.

How would the country have fared through The Great Depression and World War II if this generation would have been raised where the days were filled with Game Boy and Wii (so much, that they couldn’t even be bothered to look up while trailing behind their parents in a store)? They had gotten trophies for coming in last? They talked back to their parents and teachers? They had snacked on Cheetos and soda? If they had thrown tantrums and were hugged and asked to talk about their feelings?

I’m pretty sure our country would have survived, but it definitely wouldn’t have had The Greatest Generation nor been as prosperous at one of the most challenging times in history.

I don’t condone the days of child labor, but we went from one extreme to the other. Where is the happy medium? Where is love, support, and education while teaching manners, coping skills, and responsibility? It seems most children today are raised to be narcissistic, entitled, and unable to cope with difficulties. None of these where characteristics of Kalish’s generation. Just sayin’.

14 thoughts on “The Greatest Generation

  1. In spite of the red cheeked garbling, you did quite well on your book report. Immediately after finishing it I went outside to find a chicken. Hat influence is a good thing but when you make me yearn to kill something you’ve hit the big time, and though I didn’t find a chicken, I may slaughter a sparrow for practice, or the neighbor’s cat. I hope you approve of me taking photos of the aftermath with my smart phone. After all, I must concede something to technology. I wonder if Walmart sells live chickens?


  2. I agree with how this book made you look at our generation. I too long for a life where I don’t feel so worthless, for lack of a better word. It is a struggle working a desk job and feeling you contribute nothing to society. Not that I wish to have lived during the Great Depression but I wish that I did have to fight more for things in my life. We have all become so lazy, myself included in this statement. I have no children but I see children today and they are like zombies. It is scarey to see how the advancing technologies have impacted our lives and I often question if these things are for the better. I am definitely going to read this book, thank you for this recommendation. Hopefully it will inspire me to make some personal changes.


    • There’s no doubt many advancements have been for the better, but I feel like some are more along the lines of “just because we can, should we?”

      I work with children, so I see first hand (at parks, etc.) how different the approach to children is. Again, parts of it are good, parts of it not so good. I just wish we could find that balance in life and teaching new generations. The past isn’t all bad, there are so many great things to take from it and learn from it and fuse it with the advancements we have now. Just my opinion.


  3. I wasn’t born in the midwest, but spent some vacations at my grandparent’s farm in Allendale, Missouri, plus spent some time at my uncle and aunt’s farm in Savannah, Missouri.

    It was so different from life in our hometown of Pineville, Louisiana. I learned firsthand what it was like to work on a farm, picking up hay out of the fields and stacking it on a flatbed trailer when I worked with my cousin on their farm in Savannah.

    Also spent some time in Hiawatha, Kansas visiting my mom and other relatives there. So I might not be a midwesterner except by birth, being born in Indiana in 1944, but lived there only the first two years of my life, but I can relate to someone growing up in the midwest, having lived their life for a week or two at a time.


    • I think those types of experiences are great for anyone to have. And vice versa. I think it’s always good, no matter what environment or setting you live in, to go check out the “other side.” Again, it teaches a balance and a well-rounded perception of life.


  4. Perhaps we need more adversity in our lives. The 1930s were a response to the 1920s which was a lively time. The flappers of the 1920s had to learn to persevere and make it through the Great Depression. The war meant to continue on in the same manner but with a greater purpose. I bet there was belly-aching a plenty.


  5. Yes, it is amusing what passes for adversity these days. I can remember my grandparents having a coal burning fireplace and being snowed in and not being able to get coal to the house for days. That is the kind of thing I fall back on when our power goes out for a couple minutes during a blizzard or a t-storm. We don’t KNOW what true adversity really, really is. Those folks in the South this week who have no clothes or shelter. Adversity.


  6. A few weeks back, I reprinted some excepts on my “Fence and Garden” blog, from the 1935 book “Five Acres and Independence”. The book draws on the Dept. of Agricultures long term project/study of families living a sustainable life on, you guessed it, 5 acres. One of my favorite lines from the book was about how children help in the production of food that will sustain their family as a unit, how real that is, versus city life. I’m working on turning half my yard into an organic garden this season, and the old book is still full of useful information on both planting and storing and selling your produce.


  7. I grew up and still live on the east coast, not far from New York City, so the midwest farm life was alien to me, outside of books and movies of course. On my first trip to Iowa, I was struck by exactly what you said: Life is just a little simpler there. At first I found it strange and amusing, but I began to adapt after a while and found a contentment and peace you don’t get on the coast.


  8. Both my mom and dad grew up in the 30’s on farms in Kansas during the Depression. They are part of the Greatest Generation. My 91 year old mom is in the process of writing her “memoirs” about life on the farm for my grankids to read, she says, so they’ll know about something that is no longer a part of people’s lives. I think she is right…and so are you. I will get her this book, as I am sure there are similarities to their stories. What a great find. Thanks for sharing. I love having you on my blogroll..and spreading the joy! Keep writing!


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