Hannibal Free Public Library

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

Mildred Armstrong Kalish

August 22, 2011


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.”

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1. Little Heathens recounts an adult woman’s memories of a childhood long past. What is the difference between a child's perspective and an adult’s? How did Kalish’s understanding of the world change as she grew older? Are there some ways in which her approach to life is still the same now as when she was a child?

2. How did Kalish’s memoir enhance your understanding of the Great Depression? What differences existed between farmers and city dwellers who lived through it? What legacies of this time period exist in your family?

3. Which of Kalish’s relatives was most memorable to you? Was there an Aunt Belle in your childhood? Who plays that role for the next generation?

4. How would you characterize the dynamics within Kalish’s large family? How was peace kept? What accounted for the contrasts between her relatives who were indulgent and those who were frugal?

5. What comparisons can you make between men’s and women’s roles during this period in American history? What did Kalish’s mother teach her about what a woman could expect of life?

6. Discuss the economic realities that defined this era. What determined who would manage to get by and who, like the families she describes, would lose their farms altogether? What attitudes toward money was Kalish taught to develop?

7. Kalish describes the longevity of many of her ancestors, who relied on home remedies rather than emergency rooms for treatment. She also describes the presence of cream in most of her family’s meals, and the availability of glorious fresh-baked desserts that would be strictly forbidden on a contemporary weight-loss plan. What keys to health and wellness does her memoir provide?

8. What did it take to fit in within this Iowa community? Which children and adults were accepted, and which ones might be subject to pranks or gossip? How did Kalish’s experience at school compare to that of a student at one of the large public schools that now replace her classroom?

9. How did you react to the discussions of food preparation featured in the book–from regulating the stove temperature to slaughtering–and cleaning–the main course? What were the benefits and shortcomings of such a labor-intensive use of fresh ingredients, and of life without supermarkets? Did any aspects of Kalish’s Depression-era cuisine surprise you?

10. In the end, Kalish tells us how she was able to journey far from the farm and build a life in urban areas. What distinguishes those who remained on the farm from those who left it?

Adapted from:  http://www.readinggroupguides.com/guides_L/little_heathens1.asp