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Coming through the Depression

BY DANA JUDAS | OCTOBER 05, 2009 7:20 AM

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Mildred Kalish’s memoir was 85 years in the making. In 2007, she penned the bestseller Little Heathens, the story of her childhood on a farm in Garrison, Iowa. Though she grew up during the Great Depression, she was able to create an independent life for herself through education and hard work.

Kalish will have a book signing today at 4 p.m. at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St. Following the event, she will read from her memoir at 7 p.m. at Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St.

She attended the UI and eventually taught writing both at the UI and other colleges and universities for 42 years until retiring in 1986. She also served in the U.S. Coastguard Women’s Reserve.

In an age in which darning socks and baking seem archaic, the skills enabled her to live an independent life, relying on her talents to see her through the storm.

“I was prepared to live an independent life far better than anyone else I knew,” Kalish said.

Her independence also led her to continue her education after high school instead of getting married — a popular alternative at the time.

“I knew there was another world; I wanted more,” she said.

Though the Depression and the deep effect it had on her life was never far from her mind, she was prompted to write Little Heathens after her great-granddaughter expressed interest in learning more about her childhood days on the farm in Iowa.

The author is thrilled to have made so many new friends because of the popularity of the book. She is touched by the e-mails and visits she receives at her home in Cupertino, Calif.

“She had such a wonderful time when she read at ‘Live from Prairie Lights’ two years ago that she wanted to come back,” said Jan Weissmiller, a co-owner of Prairie Lights.

Because of Kalish’s overwhelming popularity, the reading had to be changed from the intimate setting at the bookstore to something larger to accommodate the large crowd expected to attend.

Weissmiller said the book is still very popular in the store and remains a bestseller though it is 2 years old. She believes the book’s message resonates in some way with what the country is going through now.

The need to be frugal and thankful for every penny taught Kalish the importance of money at a very early age, though she said she is not resentful of the hard work and tough times she endured as a child (her childhood home had no electricity, running water, or telephone). Instead, she praises the experience as solidifying her independent spirit. The tough lessons she learned early on have driven her to achieve as much as possible throughout her life. Indeed, she is still surprised at the optimism shown by friends and family during the uncertain financial times.

“Don’t let anyone tell you money isn’t important,” she said. “It is.”


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