Monday, June 13, 2011

If You Had Ancestors Who Lived During the Great Depression...

... you might enjoy reading A Secret Gift. How One Man's Kindness--and a Trove of Letters--Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression by Ted Gup.

This book is a mix of biography of the author’s grandfather, Sam Stone, and glimpses into the lives and circumstances of people who lived in Canton, Ohio, during the Great Depression. Sam Stone (anonymously as B. Virdot), put an ad in a local newspaper in December, 1933, offering $5.00 to 75 different families if they would write to him and tell them their hardships. Because he promised not to reveal the identity of the recipients, he engendered the confidence and trust of those who wrote to tell their situations. The only letters that survived are those written by people who received money from Sam Stone.

The letters were passed on to Sam Stone’s grandson, the author, who said of them, “It was some months before I recognized what a rare, perhaps unique, historical trove had literally been placed in my hands. There are many extant letters from the period [of the Great Depression], and oral histories aplenty that record the trauma of those years, but here before me was a contemporaneous account of an entire community, written with an intimacy and candor that only the perpetual assurance of secrecy could have produced. Because these letters were never intended for the public eye, they are among the most unvarnished and compelling accounts of those years. Collectively they preserve the struggle not merely of an individual or a family but of an entire town at the very time that it was being ravaged by the harshest poverty America had ever known....”

The author pointed out that people of that time period were not given to self pity. He wrote, “It was part of the allure of America that the past could be left behind, that men and women could reinvent themselves. Besides, it was a given that others had suffered similarly. There was little therapeutic value to be gained from opening up old wounds, and it was impolite to pry. Nothing in my grandfather’s day was as out of fashion as self-pity. Only to later generations, coddled by prosperity, analgesics, and concerns over leisure and longevity, would such flinty self-reliance seem extraordinary or explorations of one’s sorrows become so common as to be featured on daytime TV....”

“To capitulate to self-pity or public plaints not only exposed weakness in one’s own character but threatened to unravel the composure of others. It was like a team that carried a terrible load evenly distributed across many shoulders. Each looked to the other for support. To break emotional rank only added to the burden of others. It was fine to vent in a political sense, to march on Washington or rail against the banks. But it was expected that one and all would maintain a certain grit and stoicism. ‘When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang one,’ Roosevelt is said to have counseled. For some, it may have been no more than keeping up a front, but the mere ability to do even that said something about their inner reserves...."

I can’t decide whether I most enjoyed the chapters about Sam Stone (which are interspersed through the book), or the chapters with letters and details of life during the Great Depression. Sam’s story is interesting, but the challenges of life during those Hard Times may stay in my mind longer.

Reading the circumstances of those who wrote letters to Sam caused me to reflect on my parents’ and grandparents’ lives during those years–and I wondered how one of my grandfathers, a small town barber, managed to save enough money to put one of his daughters through nurse’s training and another through cosmetology school before the end of the Great Depression. Resourcefulness would have been essential during those years.

The book also offered a different perspective on my parents’ stoicism, independence, and strong-willed stubbornness. My siblings and I always assumed those characteristics came from our German ancestors. My thoughts changed after reading this book. As children of the depression, Mom was 14 in 1929 and graduated from high school in 1933; my father was a 17-year-old farmer’s son in 1929 and the oldest child when his father died in 1933. Perhaps those traits and characteristics had their start in my parents’ genes during early years and just became stronger through the 1930s.

If you want to learn more about what it was like to live through the Great Depression, this book is excellent.


  1. Hi Nancy, thanks for telling us about this! I'm going to have to get a copy for my mom and for myself. Near the end, you describe my Grandma T. to a tee! We always said it was the Hedrick in her.

    Have a great week,

    Kathy M.

  2. Sounds like a wonderful book, Nancy. I'll have to take a look at it. My husband's parents grew up not far from Canton during the Depression. Thanks for the well-written review!

  3. This book sounds so interesting! I'm surely going to look for it. I am very much drawn to the 30's as an era, not just because of the depression, but that certainly defined the era.

  4. Thank you for mentioning this! I read an article in I think it was Smithsonian Magazine back in December about this story. I either didn't realize or didn't remember that there was a book. Thanks for the reminder. I'll have to check it out!

  5. Kathy (from Oregon) - We always said something similar - "It's the Meinzen" or "It's the Doyle...." Funny how we assume some characteristics are part of a family's make-up. Thanks for coming to visit. I hope you enjoy the book.

  6. Kathleen, you might also enjoy the Maisie Dobbs series of mysteries. They take place in England and the earliest ones are set in the mid- to late-20s, the most recent ones in the early 1930s. Thanks for coming to visit.

  7. Cynthia, I just saw that article in the December Smithsonian a few days ago while perusing the magazine in the optometrist's waiting room. It was a good article and just hints at what's in the rest of the book. I hope you enjoy it.

  8. This was a great book and I really enjoyed reading it. And the Maisie Dobbs series is great, too. I also just stumbled across a series of books by Charles Todd about an British police inspector in the 1920s...worth a look see.

  9. Hi Nancy, I really enjoyed this book and am so glad it's getting more widely known within the gen community! Also I love the entire Maisie Dobbs series, which you recommended to Kathleen. I second Heather's comments about the Charles Todd series, as well--written by a mom-and-son team!

  10. Marian, you are the 2nd or 3rd person to recommend Charles Todd. I'm going to find several and begin. Thanks!


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