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.

Every Iowan needs to take a trip to West Branch to learn about the humanitarian who was our 31st president. Before and after his presidency, he used his management skills and financial resources to help people around the world.

Before he was president, Hoover was chairman of the American Commission for Relief in Belgium. In 1915, he reported, “All Belgium is now on a ration of 10 ounces of bread per day, rich and poor alike, …” (from the Historical New York Times, available through the PrairieCat catalog under the Find Articles tab). Because Hoover was able to get food shipped to Belgium in time to save millions from starvation, he is regarding as a hero there today. Streets and plazas have been named after him. According to a NPR report, “Hoovermania in Belgium,” he organized feeding “more than nine million people every day for four long years . ” He was an “international symbol of American generosity and practical idealism. ”

The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum displays give you insight into the depths of gratitude felt by Belgians during and after World War 1. The Belgians embroidered flour sacks with expressions of thanks to Hoover.

The taped interviews also make you understand a little bit of the horrors of  the widespread starvation felt by Europeans.  One man tells of the wonder of getting a bread roll, dubbed “Hoover rolls.”

So, celebrate Hoover’s birthday with a trip to West Branch and learn a little more about a truly fascinating man.

glasscastle “I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through the Dumpster.”  That’s the opening line of Jeannette Walls’ memoir.  True to form without, The Glass Castle doesn’t disappoint.

We first follow Jeannette and her family as they shuffle from one desert community to another, one step ahead of the law and from homelessness.  Her father, though brilliant, is also an alcoholic and usually unemployed; her mother is flighty and artistic with a hands-off philosophy of child-rearing.  One of the author’s first memories is that of being burned — she was three years old and cooking hot dogs on the stove unsupervised.

halfbrokehorsesThe family eventually settles in a shack in the dismal coal-mining town of  Welch, West Virginia, their father’s hometown and a place he had earlier escaped.  Here the children manage to survive by fending off bullies and eating out of garbage cans at school.   This all may sound rather depressing, but in fact,  this is a very uplifting book.  What comes through, loud and clear, is the author’s sincere love and affection for her parents — in spite of the obvious neglect and abuse. This and the fact that she was able to triumph over her upbringing and carve out a very successful life for herself makes this one of the best books I have read this year.

Now Walls has a new book out, Half-Broke Horses, which deals primarily with her grandmother.  If it’s anything like her first book, it will be fascinating!

dust-bowl_photoWhen times are tough, it helps to read about those who have gone through even more desperate times – with grace and courage.

Early settlers and homesteaders lived near the margin; they felt fortunate if they had the very basics of life (in the face of drought, pestilence, and economic collapse). Books like Nothing to Do But Stay by Carrie Young and the Laura Ingalls Wilder books immerse the reader in the hard life of the pioneer on the plains.

Books with a  documentary slant are Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich and Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression by Studs Terkel. Both made an important societal  impact and yet are highly  readable.

Poverty was a fact of life at the turn of the century; poor families lived without any kind of safety net.  This was a common theme in early American childrens’ literature. Two tight-knit families who lived in “ramshackle cottages” and faced eviction, illness and other disasters with humor are the Five Little Peppers series by Margaret Sidney and Mrs. Wiggs and the Cabbage Patch by Alice Rice.

All these books provide context and role models for today’s tough times.

Also recommended:

Books:

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Curtis

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

DVDs (adapted from books):

Grapes of Wrath

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl

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