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Dave Wood's Book Report, Sept. 19, 2007

On the regional front this week we have a lovely book, "Little Heathens," by Mildred Armstrong Kalish (Bantam, $22).

The little heathens are what the author's grandparents call her and her brothers and sisters when they come to live with the old folks in Garrison, Iowa, just as the Great Depression begins.

It's a heartwarming story about the extended family, their mores and folkways, even their recipes, their surviving the dreadful economic situation and even the weather that brought famine and pestilence to the once rich countryside.

The little heathens arrive in Iowa in 1930 with their mother, after their father disgraces himself and is banned from the family by a very strict and austere father-in-law, the Iowa farmer, whom she calls "a hearty handshake Methodist," meaning a handshake is OK, but hugging or showing any emotion whatsoever is taboo.

The old man and his family do most of their shopping in Vinton, Iowa, at J.C. Penney's because he heard somewhere that old J.C. would hire no one who used tobacco.

When the author grows up she discovers that "one could have a beaker or two of Scotch whiskey without going to Hell," and told her grandpa about it. "Grandpa, even Jesus turned the water into wine at the wedding!"

"Well I know he did," replied the old man. "And that's the only thing I ever held against him."

Grandmother was a different story. She came from a family that liked nice things and a good time. She even told jokes about flatulence!

Kalish is especially good when talking about religion and its hierarchies in a small town 75 years ago.

Her family Methodist family fit somewhere in the middle: "... a Methodist is a Baptist who learned to read; a Presbyterian is a Methodist who went to college; and an Episcopalian is a Presbyterian who's made the social register."

Despite the family's austerity, Kalish has high marks for her mother and her grandparents, who instilled in her a respect for discipline, education, doing the right thing.

She points out that in those days, if you worked hard, did your chores, behaved yourself, your elders would permit you to read a book that night.

"Presidential Diversions," by Paul F. Boller (Harcourt, $25) is a potpourri of facts about our presidents, from the first chapter, "The Dignified George Washington to the last, "The Physically Fit George W. Bush."

Boller, a former Texas Christian professor specializes in presidential stuff, and lists four previous books to his credit: "Presidential Inaugurations," "Presidential Wives," "Presidential Anecdotes" and Presidential Anecdotes."

In his new book we learn all manner of trivia about our First Persons. We learn that John Quincy Adams skinny-dipped in the Potomac, William McKinley was an adult before he knew what ice cream was, Lyndon Johnson smoked four packs of cigarettes a day, and Jimmy Carter was an accomplished high diver.

Boller is a vacuum cleaner-type historian, sucking up details hither and yon without paying much attention to the relative weights of his findings. But he's not without a sense of humor and an aptitude for comparison.

He says "George W. Bush had one thing -- and only one -- in common with Franklin D. Roosevelt: He liked to bestow nicknames on the people he worked with when he was president."

In Roosevelt's White House, he called Thomas Corcoran, "Tommy the Cork"; his chief adviser Harry Hopkins became "Harry the Hop." And Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes became "Ickes the Ick."

Our current president has taken the nicknaming even further and caused confusion among aides who aren't privy to his pet nomenclatures.

Here's a sampling: "The president says get me Knuckles on the line, or here's the Esquimo, or let Bones and Uptown handle this and nobody has a clue as to whom he is talking about."

In one instance, Bush orders that "Bullets" be sent to represent him at a forthcoming conference on farm subsidies and the aide presumes he's referring to General Colin Powell. Not so. Bush was referring to his Secretary of Agriculture when he asked for "Bullets." Bush calls General Colin Powell "Balloonfoot."

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. E-mail him at