• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming, home schooling, and building our own house. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 18/Grade 12, 16/Grade 11, and 14/Grade 10.

    Contact me at becky(dot)farmschool(at)gmail(dot)com

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    "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
    William Morris, from his lecture "The Beauty of Life"

    "‘Never look at an ugly thing twice. It is fatally easy to get accustomed to corrupting influences."
    English architect CFA Voysey (1857-1941)

    "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead."
    Clarence Day

    "Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing."

    "Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend."
    Sir Francis Bacon, "Essays"

    "The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."
    Gilbert Highet, "The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning"

    "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."
    Walter Wriston

    "I'd like to give you a piece of my mind."
    "Oh, I couldn't take the last piece."
    Ginger Rogers to Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady" (1938)

    "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."
    Booker T. Washington

    "Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
    Attributed to Groucho Marx in "The Groucho Letters" by Arthur Sheekman

    "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
    Alice Roosevelt Longworth

    "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, we feel all our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
    Jean Hagen as "Lina Lamont" in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
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Gosh all hemlock!

I’m enough of a Luddite that I found it more than a bit disconcerting earlier today, when bringing up the Amazon website to look at a book, to find the main page welcoming me with “Science Picks for Becky”. But disconcertedness turned to intrigue when the first cover’s illustration, and then its title, caught my eye: Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression by Mildred Armstrong Kalish, just out in May and just thirteen dollars and twenty cents. And the cover is adorable. A glowing five star review from someone who didn’t seem to be related to Mrs. Kalish. Hmmm…

Then I went Google hunting and found Elizabeth Gilbert‘s glowing review in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review. On the front page. From which:

Some of what follows is unsurprising. You’ll never guess it, but these kids were taught to work. They planted potatoes, tended livestock, hayed fields and were beaten for any lapses in judgment. They did without luxuries (electricity, leisure, heat) and were never coddled on account of their tender youth. (“Childhood was generally considered to be a disease,” Kalish recalls, “or, at the very least, a disability, to be ignored for the most part, and remedied as quickly as possible.”)

For anyone from an old-school farming background, this is familiar territory. “We were taught that if you bought something it should last forever — or as close to forever as we could contrive,” Kalish reports predictably. Or: “When one of us kids received a scratch, cut or puncture, we didn’t run to the house to be taken care of.” If all that “Little Heathens” offered, then, were more such hard-times homilies, this would not be much of a book. But this memoir is richer than that, filled with fervency, urgency and one amazing twist, which surprised me to the point of a delighted, audible gasp: Mildred Armstrong Kalish absolutely loved her childhood.

It’s not merely that she appreciated the values instilled by the Great Depression, or that now, in her older years, she wants to preserve memories of a lost time (though all this is true). No — beyond that, she reports quite convincingly that she had a flat-out ball growing up (“It was quite a romp”) and her terrifically soaring love for those childhood memories saturates this book with pure charm, while coaxing the reader into the most unexpected series of sensations: joy, affection, wonder and even envy. …

Later in life, Kalish became a professor, and while the foundation of her writing is still English-teacher English (orderly, with perfect posture) her old pagan rhythms seep through every disciplined paragraph. “This was our world,” she writes, but one gets the feeling that Garrison, Iowa, was really her world, which she experienced with the awe of a mystic. In the violet dusk of a cornfield, in the cool mornings on her way to chores, on the long, unsupervised walks to school, in the decadence of eating bacon drippings, heavy cream and ground-cherries, Kalish’s simple life routinely aroused her to an almost erotic extreme. (Then again, this was the only kind of eroticism available; the poor girl was never taught even the starkest fundamentals of human sexuality, regretting that “in those days, we were supposed to get such information from the gutter. Alas! I was deprived of the gutter, too!”) …

Kalish is wise enough to know that the last link to the past is usually language, and rather than lament what’s been lost, she stays connected to her youthful world by using its gleeful, if outdated, lingo. (Tell me the last time you heard someone exclaim, “Not on your tintype!” or “Gosh all hemlock!”) She admits self-deprecatingly that there were certain expressions she heard spoken so often as a child that she grew up mistakenly thinking they were each a single word: “agoodwoman, hardearnedmoney, agoodhardworker, alittleheathen, adrunkenbum, demonrum and agoodwoolskirt.”

Memories too can run together like this, becoming mishmashed over time. Not with Mildred Armstrong Kalish, though. As a natural-born memoirist (by which I mean not only “one who writes an autobiography” but also “one who remembers everything”), Kalish has kept her memories tidily ordered for decades. Now she has unpacked and worked them into a story that is not only trustworthy and useful (have I mentioned the recipe for homemade marshmallows?) but is also polished by real, rare happiness.

It is a very good book, indeed.

In fact, it is averyveryverygoodbook.

Sounds delightful, and perfect for Summer. Sold. And great good luck to Mrs. Kalish.

The book’s website is here. Complete with farm recipes. Oh, and you can wet your whistle with a preview of Chapter One.

Also, this charming article, “Her stories of farm life could fill a bestseller: Hopes are high for debut by local grandmother”, from The San Jose Mercury News.


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