by Richard Willis
This Thanksgiving, after tucking into turkey and other culinary delights, it's worth remembering how rich we have become and, at least in historical terms, how quickly it happened.
If that idea doesn't sit easy -- and to many, it won't -- consider dipping into this memoir following an after-dinner nap Thursday: Long Gone, by Richard Willis, which chronicles the author's life growing up on an Iowa farm in the 1930s and '40s. It also provides an interesting economic perspective.
In some ways, the book, published in October by Greenpoint Press, tells an unremarkable tale of agricultural life during a period of large-scale privation and gloom in the farm belt. That is a story that many of us have heard before.
What Willis has done, though -- and with uncommon clarity of style -- is to give readers the minute details of day-to-day life at a time before mass mechanization changed the economic and physical landscape forever. This is the way things were before Archer Daniels Midland became synonymous with the grain belt and food became abundant.
Somehow, he manages to pull the reader through the pages despite the absence of a compelling plot, other than the changing of the seasons or the passing of years.
At least part of the magic must be his inclusion of the small telling details, such as the daily chores, the foods eaten or the now-unfamiliar social activities from a time before radio. The stark contrast between the way the vast majority of us live in the U.S. early in the 21st century and the spartan way in which Willis' family eked out a not-unhappy existence three-quarters of a century ago is truly huge.
After a very short introduction that takes the reader from the 1991 funeral of the author's brother back to his own birth in 1927, the book starts in earnest in 1931, as Willis and family prepare to "give farming another try."
The author relays his excitement at the prospect of a home with running water and electricity, things we now take so much for granted that to offer up a house without them would be scandalous.
Unfortunately, that building burned down before the family could move in. In their eventual home, the Willises hand-pumped their water and got light from kerosene lamps.
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At his first school -- a one-room building a mile's walk from home -- he says the poorest of the children ate sandwiches filled with plain lard. It is a huge contrast to the recent New York City ban on restaurant use of trans fats. Clearly we've come far enough to where the problem of "enough food" has been supplanted by making sure we get "the right food."
As the book progresses, Willis takes us through the detail of farm chores he performed as a young man including, at times, hand-milking cows, husking corn and castrating pigs. Although it's clear that some of the tasks were disagreeable, more usually when given a hard job to do, he performed it with a sense of duty or pride, as he saw it as a sign he was changing from a boy into a "man."
One thing he learned to do was plow using a team of draught horses. If that sounds like a rural idyll, it shouldn't. For farmers, horses weren't pets -- they were tools of production, and more than occasionally they dropped dead on the job.
In one instance, the author's father dragged a dead pony home from the fields, hacked its carcass open and fed the remains to the pigs. The author doesn't dwell on the tragedy, but instead marvels in awe at how his father had the will to go on in the face of such a calamity.
Willis' skill with horses became such that he says his favorite farm work involved cutting hay with a horse-drawn mower. For years after leaving home, whenever he'd pass a farmer doing a similar task, he fought back the desire to ask to drive a couple of passes at the grass. It's one of the few things he says he regrets not requesting.
Willis also observes how farmers' wives made the best of a poor situation in the 1930s. One piece of marketing genius lay in printing floral patterns on sacks of chicken feed. The reason: The women had long been known to convert the used fabric into "rough aprons" and dish towels. However, the new decoration opened the door to dresses, bonnets and other more formal items of clothing, so the development both acknowledged the tough economic times and gave the wise feed-sellers an extra edge.
Still, Willis never once bangs the woe-is-me drum of childhood hardship. Rather, the tone is one of acceptance -- simply, "this is the way it was" -- as the overarching theme. In essence, Willis is grateful for the childhood he had and shows his gratitude in this simply told, yet fascinating and insightful book.