The Great Depression of the 1930s was the longest, most widespread and deepest depression of the 20th century. It’s effects were devastating – unemployment rose to 25%, even 50% in hard hit areas, and people struggled simply to get food on the table. Gifts for Christmas – let alone extravagant overspending – was impossible for many families and the holidays were just another day to get through.

Into this bleak landscape, in one of the most desperate areas of the country, a message of compassion arrives. An anonymous ad is placed in the Canton, Ohio newspaper offering 75 families in distress a cash gift. Letters were to be sent to a “B. Virdot”, General Delivery. Within days the post office was deluged. The mysterious “B. Virdot”, whose identity was never revealed, gave a modest gift of $5 (which, in 1933 was worth close to $100 today) to 150 families, spreading cheer – and more importantly hope – not only to them, but to others desperate to know someone still cared.

Nearly 70 years later, Ted Gup was cleaning out papers that had been left to him by his grandfather when he came across a cache of letters all addressed to a “B. Virdot”. Here at last, the mystery of who this anonymous benefactor was and why he did it are revealed and recounted  in A Secret Gift. In addition to discovering his grandfather’s life story, Gup tracks down many of the recipients of his grandfather’s gift and it’s impact on their lives. The stories of hardship are heartbreaking but the power of even such a small gift and it’s ability to turn people’s lives around is an inspiration.

If you liked the movie Secretariat and have  been following Zenyatta’s career as an undefeated filly (up till her last race),  you may want to check out more horse movies and books.

Seabiscuit stars another underdog, so-to-speak, who becomes an incredible crowd-pleaser.  The movie is based on a book by Laura Hillenbrand. This true, Depression-era story stars  Toby Maguire as the teenage jockey whose destitute parents left him with a horse trainer.  Jeff Bridges is the owner whose son is killed in a car accident, and  Chris Cooper as a homeless, former cowboy. He  discovers Seabiscuit and becomes his trainer.  They all form a unique team, as Seabiscuit becomes a celebrated winner, giving hope to a nation of down-and-outers.

Like Secretariat,  both horses are dismissed early on as losers, but they loved nothing so much as to come from behind and win races in a nail-biting, dramatic fashion.

In Velva Jean Learns to Drive, ten-year-old Velva Jean dreams of someday singing at the Grand Ole Opry.  Her plans change suddenly, though, when her daddy disappears on one of his frequent adventures and her mama falls ill and dies.  This leaves her and her brother, Johnny Clay, in the care of a resentful older sister, with plenty of time on their hands for mischief.  As soon as she turns 16, Velva Jean marries the charismatic evangelist, the Rev. Harley Bright, a moonshiner’s son and former fellow mischief-maker.  All this takes place in the beautiful Appalachians in North Carolina during the 1930’s, just as the Civilian Conservation Corps is carving out the Blue Ridge Parkway right through their mountainous backyard.  At a time when most of her friends and neighbors had never even seen an automobile, Velva Jean somehow finds the strength to defy the social expectations of the day and follow her own dreams.

The author, Jennifer Niven, brings an authenticity to Velva Jean’s voice.  Her own grandparents, the McJunkin’s, grew up near Asheville, and the summers she spent visiting them. plus her own research into her family’s history, seem to have paid off with this delightful coming-of-age novel.

Jason and Whit Fireson keep dying, but they can’t seem to stay dead.

Leaders of the notorious, bank-robbing Firefly Gang, they wake up one day in a small-town morgue with no idea on how they got there. They should be dead – they both sport apparently fatal gunshot wounds – yet miraculously they’ve survived. Slipping away before the authorities realize what’s happened, they race to complete one more big job and to find the women they love.

Set in 1934 with the country mired in the Great Depression, The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers follows the adventures – and deaths – of the outlaws as they race across the Midwest, J Edgar Hoover’s fledgling FBI agency hot on their heels. To the common people, the Firefly brothers are seen as daring heroes, striking a blow against a broken system, and the stories of their escapades reach mythic proportions. To the law they’re an embarrassment that must be stopped.

Mullen does an incredible job of evoking the atmosphere of the times from the cars and the slang to the desperation, the fear, the feeling that society itself was breaking down. There’s a little of everything here – kidnapping, gun fights, car chases, narrow escapes, blood and violence.  There’s also loyalty and friendship, family ties that reach across time and distance, love that outlasts death with an ending that leaves plenty of room for discussion.

wettest countyNo, this has nothing to do with rainfall. Rather, the “wet” refers to moonshine.  The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, a fictionalized account about the real-life Bondurant brothers in Depression-era Virginia is gritty, gutsy and sometimes even gory.  It’s narrated primarily by the youngest brother, Jack, who is in fact, the grandfather of the author.  The author, Matt Bondurant, also enlists the help of  Winesburg, Ohio author Sherwood Anderson who started his own investigation (in 1934) of the brothers’ dramatic confrontation with the county sheriff.  In doing so, Anderson was the first to dub Franklin County the “wettest county in the world.”

The story begins in 1928 when a pair of thieves rob Forest Bondurant of his large stash of bootlegging money and end up cutting his throat.  Somehow he manages to reach a hospital 12 miles away.  Soon after, two anonymous men appear at the same hospital, one with legs totally shattered, the other castrated.  Needless to say, they aren’t talking. You get the picture — this is real roughneck country and the Bondurant boys are no angels.

Bondurant does an excellent job of imagining and portraying the probable lives of his ancestors.  It’s not always pretty, but it does give the reader a gripping view of their struggles to survive during Prohibition in the poverty-stricken foothills of westernVirginia.

seabiscuitThe 135th running of the Kentucky Derby is tomorrow and beyond the mint-julips and fancy hats, there will be a horse race.  While horse racing has faded in popularity, at one time it was one of the most popular sports in America, avidly followed by thousands of fans across the nation from big events (like the Derby) to small country tracks.

Perhaps no figure epitomized the huge interest in the sport as much as a modest little horse called Seabiscuit. Racing in the 1930s and 40s, he had a life story that the masses suffering through the Great Depression could relate to – he was of non-descript breeding, undersized and awkward, with a cantankerous personality that didn’t respond well to punishment. Yet with the right combination of support, understanding, training and luck, Seasbiscuit became a huge star, setting multiple records and beating fancy, expensive East coast horses. It’s the classic American story of the underdog overcoming all adversity.

Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand is more than a feel-good story about a horse; it’s also a look into that unique time in America when the Great Depression seemed never-ending and the world was on the brink of war. This is story-telling at its best – incredibly well researched, riveting non-fiction that reads like fiction. The build-up to the big races – especially the match race with War Admiral and the Santa Anita Derby – is nearly unbearable, and the comebacks after injury (for both Seabiscuit and his jockey) are incredible. The people – the jockey who was blind in one eye, the reclusive trainer, the rags-to-riches owner – are not Hollywood characters but real people and their stories will move you.

The book has spawned a movie by the same name and while the movie is well-acted, beautifully photographed and well worth watching, this is another case of the book being better than the movie. For action, drama and heart you simply can’t beat the story of Seabiscuit.

prayers-for-saleHennie Comfort has lived in the mining settlement of Middle Swan, located in mountains of Colorado, for more than 70 years. As she begins contemplating moving down the mountain to live with her daughter, she passes on the stories of her life to her new friend, young Nit Spindle, who’s recently arrived in the isolated town.

Set during the hardscrabble years of the Great Depression, Hennie’s stories, like one of the beautiful quilts she stitches, are made up of all kinds of material – joyful, tragic, laugh-out-loud funny. Life in the mining town is hard – the work in the mine is dangerous, the weather is often harsh and luxuries are few.

Prayers for Sale follows Hennie’s many tales – the death of her first husband in the Civil War and the death of the second in the mines, the loss of children, the love of her mountain home – as well the stories of her often colorful friends and neighbors. Hennie shows no prejudice, becoming friends with people from all walks of life, guarding their secrets and keeping their stories. Hennie has secrets of her own – watch for a surprise twist at the end of the book. This oral history, while unique to this small town, is universal in it’s themes of love, friendship and survival. You’ll be glad you visited.