Reading someone else’s family history, especially when you are not remotely acquainted with that family and its various members, can be daunting. Downright confusing, in fact.
So it was with not a little trepidation that I agreed to read and review a pre-publication copy of Joy Neal Kidney’s latest book Leora’s Dexter Stories: The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression.
I was, however, pleasantly surprised by my experience. For the first several chapters, I was, indeed, a little confused as I tried to remember the various members of the large family that Kidney describes in the book. But I was soon able to see the larger picture as all the pieces began to come together and I became acquainted with each member she mentioned.
The Wilson family comprised the parents, Clabe and Leora Wilson, and their seven children, all but one of whose names began with the letter D (which added to my initial confusion!). From youngest to oldest, they were Junior, Danny, Darlene and Dale (twins), Doris, Donald, and Delbert. The book includes numerous photos of the family members help one quickly become familiar with them. Initial confusion quickly turns to insatiable curiosity about what happens to each of them, and I found myself not wanting to stop reading.
The names, faces, places, situations, and events of other families during the Depression might have been different, but the conditions of the time would have been similar for millions of average families across the nation during the trying years of the Great Depression. The scarcity of money, the constant struggle to feed the family, sickness and death, obstacles to advancement, numerous and varied jobs to make ends meet, and each family member’s mutual efforts to keep the family together are constant themes throughout the book. Yet, in spite of the hardships of the times, people still had fun, and the Wilson family was no exception. They played ball. They fixed up old cars. They celebrated Christmas and other holidays, albeit in limited ways. They sledded, exulting in their new sled. They went to school and learned. They lived, loved, and learned.
Kidney’s book, with short chapters, is fast paced. The narrative is filled with examples of folkways, customs, and ways of doing things that vividly reveal the time period. That lifestyle will be readily recognized by the older readers and will provide valuable insights of the earlier generation for younger readers.
Leora’s Dexter Stories is Kidney’s second book, her first being Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family during World War II. In the earlier work, she tells the tragic story of how the Wilson family had five sons who served overseas during the war. Only two of the brothers returned.
Kidney describes herself on her Amazon author page as “the keeper of family stories, letters, pictures, research, combat records, casualty reports, and terrible telegrams.” She is “active on several history and military Facebook pages,” has written “two genealogies, as well as dozens of essays in newspapers and magazines,” and is a popular guest on the Our American Stories radio broadcast. The Iowa Women’s Archives of the University of Iowa include a collection of her essays.
If you’re interested in the events of the Depression and World War II and how those greater narratives affected everyday life for everyday people, these Kidney’s books are for you. With so many eyewitnesses of these two historic periods, it’s critical that such accounts be preserved and passed on to subsequent generations. Both books will be available on Amazon.
This was a nice surprise the morning I gave a talk at Earlham about these stories!
Dennis is the author of several books, including the delightful memoir, Look Unto the Hills: Growing Up in Rural East Tennessee.