Leora’s Early Years: Guthrie County Roots is the third book I’ve read by Joy Neal Kidney featuring her maternal grandmother Leora Goff Wilson. What I’m finding particularly intriguing is that the three books tell the story of Leora’s life in reverse chronological order, starting with the trauma of losing three of her five sons in World War II (Leora’s Letters), then going back in time to the Great Depression when Leora and her husband Clabe struggled to keep their family housed and fed (Leora’s Dexter Stories), and now, in Leora’s Early Years, her childhood, extended family, and antecedents.
With each book, I have gained further insights into this remarkable woman’s life and character, how she could stay strong and well-grounded when faced with so much adversity and personal heartache. As a reader, I have the sense that I’ve been following Kidney’s own quest to discover the answer to this same question after learning of the death of her three young uncles in World War II. I am grateful to her for seeking out Leora’s story and sharing it with the world in three well-written and engaging books. Coming to know Leora through her granddaughter’s books has enriched my own life, and coming to know Guthrie County through these books means I no longer consider Iowa a “fly-over state.”
Leora’s Early Years is further proof that Joy Neal Kidney is a master story-teller. She seamlessly weaves creative nonfiction with multiple primary sources, including postcards, newspaper stories, photographs, and Leora’s written accounts of her earliest memories.
The book is a well-structured and enjoyable read. The majority of the short chapters discuss major life events for the family, such as births, deaths, and marriages. Other chapters chronicle major events for the country and their impact on Leora’s family, including World War I, the Spanish Influenza pandemic, and the Nineteenth Amendment. Interspersed throughout the book are lighter family anecdotes, such as “The Jail Escapade” and “Clabe Bobs His Wife’s Hair” (two of my favorite chapters). The book also gives a good sense what daily life was like for average families in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth.
In addition to highly-recommending Leora’s Early Years across a wide spectrum of readers, I also highly-recommend it for book clubs, libraries, and history courses. A list of thought-provoking questions is included in the back of the book to facilitate discussion.
Liz is an encourager of many writers. She’s also the author of Telling Sonny (a novel) and Grief Songs: Poems of Love & Remembrance. Please check out her website.