In this series authors were invited to share an excerpt of 500 words from any of their published books
Submissions are now closed for this series but there will be another in early 2024.. My thanks to all who have participated.
Today the featured author is Joy Neal Kidney with an excerpt from another of her heartwarming historical biography of her family’s life – Leora’s Dexter Stories: The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression
About the book
The undertow of the Great Depression becomes poignantly personal as we experience the travails of Leora and Clabe Wilson, a displaced Iowa farm family. Gritty determination fuels this family’s journey of loss and hope, a reflection of what many American families endured during those challenging times.
In this true story the Wilsons slowly slide into unemployment and poverty. Leora must find ways to keep her dreams alive while making a haven for her flock of seven children in one run-down house after another.
An excerpt from the book – Chapter 24 – Machine Perm in Redfield
The Wilsons’ teenage daughter wanted a permanent wave. The summer before her junior year, Doris heard that a Redfield woman gave machine perms for $3. From babysitting a doctor’s children (25 cents an hour if the wife paid her, 50 cents an hour if he did), Doris had saved up the $3.
But how to get the seven miles to Redfield and back? Her mother decided she would go with her and found someone going to Redfield. He couldn’t bring them home but they could start out on foot, and surely someone from Dexter would be headed south out of Redfield and give them a ride the rest of the way.
For being out in public, which included attending her daughter’s first perm, Leora wore her good dress and two-inch Cuban heeled shoes.
The beautician started Doris’s “machine perm” by bathing strands of hair with a chemical solution, then smoothed each section around a metal roller. Each was secured with a clamp and tethered by cords to an electrical contraption that heated curlers, solution, and tresses.
Picture Medusa from mythology. Doris’s hair began to sizzle.
She kept her head very still. The whole room smelled of strong chemicals. When a spot on her head got too hot, the operator blew on it with a small bellows. Every so often the hairdresser unclamped and unrolled a curler to check the progress. When she determined that the curl was complete, she undid the rollers to reveal the new ringlets.
Doris, happy with her new look, counted out the $3, all in coins. “Be sure to wait a week before washing your curls,” she was cautioned.
Doris, reeking of chemicals, and her mother headed south out of town on foot. Cars breezed by, swishing their skirts, but no one they knew stopped to offer a ride.
In spite of the hills, their trek back to Dexter was pleasant, except for that one big downslope about halfway home. As mother and daughter trudged down the steepness, Leora’s feet slid forward in her shoes.
After they got home, Leora sat down and pulled the shoes from her sore feet. Doris was so thrilled with her new waved hair that she didn’t realize her mother had suffered.
During the next few days, Leora’s toenails began to turn black. Eventually she lost most of them.
Otherwise, the machine perm was a success–no more curling iron before school–even though it left the ends of Doris’s hair a reddish color from being singed, and pieces of her hair broke off for quite a while.
But Doris and her mother were reminded by the hills south of Redfield that Iowa certainly isn’t flat.
©Joy Neal Kidney
One of the reviews for the book
After reading Joy Neal Kidney’s first book, Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family in World War II, I eagerly awaited the follow-up. I am happy to report that Leora’s Dexter Stories: The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression did not disappoint.
The Leora of both books was Kidney’s maternal grandmother, Leora Goff Wilson, who was born in 1890 and died in 1987. Through reading about her, I feel I have come to know her almost as a member of my own family. I am quite fond of her, in fact.
In the the preface, Kidney provides this description of the woman you will meet in Leora’s Dexter Stories:
“She was an uncomplicated woman with straightforward goals: a home of their own, surrounded by family, and high school diplomas for her children. She was determined to do the hard work to accomplish her mission.”
Leora documented her family’s life and her own experiences through letters and journals. Kidney’s mother Doris provided her own first-hand accounts, and Kidney supplemented the family stories with extensive historical research. Family photographs are also included in the book, which further contributes to giving the reader a real sense of the individual members of the Wilson family and the family as a whole.
The book uses the techniques of creative nonfiction–story narration, scene, description, and dialog–to bring the Wilson family and their experiences during the Depression to life. One particularly striking example of Kidney’s adeptness with creative nonfiction is how the same belongings reappear throughout the book as the Wilsons move from one rundown house lacking indoor plumbing to another. At each new place, they are home when Clabe, the father, hangs “the velvet Home Sweet Home picture, the plate rail, and their familiar family photos” on the wall.
The section that made the biggest impression on me came early in the book: In the time before vaccines for childhood illnesses, having nine children come down with whooping cough at the same time, the two youngest, five-week-old twins, dying from it. There were several other experiences that stayed with me long after I finished reading the book: the sense of being looked down on by people in town for being on relief; how it broke a man’s spirit to be unable to provide for his family, no matter how hard he tried; the two eldest sons joining the Navy, marveling at the abundance of good food and sending money home to the family.
The book is balanced with some light moments, my favorite of which is Clabe’s impulsive decision to lop off the top of the family’s Model T truck to make a “sports roadster.” The photo of the roadster with youngest son Junior on the hood and pet squirrel Rusty on the front fender is not to be missed.
In addition to highly recommending Leora’s Dexter Stories to readers interested in the heartwarming story of a family struggling to overcome economic adversity, I would urge teachers of 20th-century US history classes to assign the book as supplemental reading. (A set of discussion questions is included at the end of the book to assist teachers and book club leaders.)
Also by Joy Neal Kidney
Read the reviews and buy the books: Amazon US – And: Amazon UK – More reviews: Goodreads – Website: Joy Neal Kidney – Facebook: Joy Neal Kidney Author – Twitter: @JoyNealKidney – Instagram: Joy Neal Kidney
About Joy Neal Kidney
Joy Neal Kidney is the oldest granddaughter of Leora Wilson, who lost three sons during WWII and was widowed, all during a three-year period. Through the decades, Joy helped take Memorial Day bouquets to the graves of those three young uncles, not knowing that only one of them is buried there–until decades later, after the death of her courageous little Grandma Leora.
Joy became a writer in order to tell her stories.
She and her husband, Guy (an Air Force Veteran of the Vietnam War and retired Air Traffic Controller) live in central Iowa. Their son is married and they live out-of-state with a small daughter named Kate.
A graduate of the University of Northern Iowa, Joy has lived with fibromyalgia for two dozen years, giving her plenty of home-bound days to write blog posts and books, working with research from decades earlier.
All of the “Leora books” tell stories about world and national events reaching into the American Heartland–westward expansion, two world wars, pandemics, how mental health issues were handled, the Great Depression, and surviving great personal losses. But they are hopeful as well.
Thank you for dropping in today and I hope you will be leaving with some books.. Sally.