When I finished The Red Leather Diary by Lily Koppel, I was left with mixed feelings. The book is the result of her fortuitous discovery of an old diary written by Florence Wolfson in a steamer trunk slated for the dump. The diary covers Wolfson’s privileged life in 1930’s Manhattan when she was between the ages of fourteen and nineteen. Koppel tracked down Wolfson, who was fortunately still alive, and together they fleshed out the diary into a book.
Wolfson was a high-spirited and extremely intelligent young woman who entered college early and was the editor of its literary journal. Her life was full of seeing theatre productions, cavorting with friends, romantic dalliances of every kind, and arguing with her mother who made her free-wheeling life possible. Getting a glimpse into city life during that time was very interesting, but I was also dissatisfied. No where was the mention of men selling apples on the street corners to make ends meet for their families; no where did it mention the impact of the Great Depression. She did mention that her family lost money, but she still had ample means to go out on the town in a new dress and get ice cream at Schrafft’s. Reading this book during the height of the Occupy Movement, I felt like I was reading the diary of the 1%.
Even though I have read Studs Terkel’s Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression and Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time about living on the plains during the Dust Bowl, I wanted to read about the Great Depression from a young girl’s point of view, specifically not by one who spends her time figuring out what she’s going to wear. I found what I was looking for in Mildred Armstrong Kalish’s memoir, Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm in the Great Depression. It did not disappoint.
Kalish provides an unsentimental but still enjoyable look into her childhood that was divided between life on the farm and life in town. Her memoir is divided into four parts: The Family, Building Character, Fall/Winter, and Spring/Summer, and through each she breaks down various facets of the beliefs, chores, and traditions that made up her upbringing. I would be lying if I didn’t say that it wasn’t a bit exhausting to read; her descriptions of attending a country school along with the farm chores and laundry day before the age of modern appliances left me a little winded. It was then followed by the responsibilities of gathering nuts and food from the garden; slaughtering, plucking, and preparing chickens for dinner; gathering and chopping firewood; and carting in water from the mill. Then imagine doing chores and walking to school in the throes of an Iowa winter.
Kalish didn’t have Wolfson’s problem of finding ways to spend her time; every moment was filled with a duty to attend to. Kalish also never had to wonder what she would wear– one dress would be worn for a week. Kalish had to come up with recipes using the food that was on hand; Wolfson had her meals prepared for her. While Kalish also did not have the luxury of loitering in museums and theatres, she did have many pleasures. There were picnics, church socials, school pageants, and a variety of outings with her family. While Wolfson could read at leisure, for Kalish it was a leisure to read. Wolfson fought and rebelled against her family; Kalish’s family were both her companions and workmates. Kalish was not lost among the throngs of New York, but centered in a close-knit community where everyone knew each other.
If I could choose between the two childhoods as my own, I would choose Kalish’s even though it is was much more demanding than Wolfson’s. Wolfson’s adolescence has much appeal: she saw great performances, she discussed and wrote about ideas and theories, she hung out with the literati, she experienced old New York before Times Square moved in. Kalish’s world was much more concrete. She gained knowledge of the land, animals, and plants; she developed a practical knowledge of the world and through her family’s belief that everything had a use, also developed problem-solving skills that did not include finding a solution via Google. Living in a time where I feel disconnected from the natural world and could not tell you which way the wind blows, her experiences, though hard, would satisfy my desire of being part of a more connected life.