It used to be that when I thought of life in the 1930s I immediately envisioned the fictitious town of Maycomb, Alabama in Harper Lee’s classic TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I felt sweltering temperatures, smelled dusty roads, and heard the hollers and shouts of dirty-faced, skinned knee children echoing through the air as they chased ice trucks and each other. I saw overalls, outhouses, and door-to-door doctors. I sensed a simpler life—life before the buzz of Facebook and Twitter and the death of the art of letter writing. (Sob) And while all those things certainly were small parts of the 1930s, they weren’t the end-all-be-all of the Great Depression. My vision had been a rather white-washed version of reality.
I fully admit to having always had somewhat of a fascination with Depression-era America. My own grandparents’ tales of life during the ‘30s sparked the flame of interest, and when I began early research for EVERY DAY AFTER, the flame was fanned into a roaring fire. The principal fanning came through my discovery of some wonderfully stark and emotional images—images captured by Dorothea Lange for the Resettlement Administration. For longer than I care to admit, I stared at what has become Lange’s most recognizable photograph: Migrant Mother.
Migrant Mother’s face, with its deep lines and leathery skin, haunted me. Hers was not the face of someone concerned only about how dirty-faced or skinned knee her children would become whilst out chasing ice trucks or other kids. Oh, no. Hers was the face of a mother filled with anxiety over her children’s very survival. Hers was a face fraught with worry over where her family’s next meal might come from, or where she would tuck her children into bed that night. Hers was certainly not the face of Atticus Finch—smooth, clean, eyeing a tasty dinner offered up in serving bowls on a properly set dining room table. Nope. Migrant Mother’s face, and the faces of her seven children, was covered with a film of sweat and dirt. She had no dining room table, merely a canvas tent, and no clue what food she was going to serve inside of it, or where that food would come from. And she definitely hadn’t enjoyed the luxury of a pre-noon bath followed by a dusting of sweet talcum and a three-o’clock nap, as had the ladies of Maycomb (page 5 in my paperback edition of To Kill A Mockingbird). All of this is apparent from the photograph.
My paternal grandfather used to say: “There was nothing good about the good ol’ days.” I used to think he was crazy. Of course there was good in the good old days; otherwise, why were they called that? But we had different perspectives, my grandfather and I. I was looking back nostalgically on a decade in which I had not lived. My grandfather had lived it. Florence Owens Thompson (Migrant Mother’s real name) had lived it. Both had experienced the dark side of Depression-era America that I’d never truly stopped to consider until I wanted to write about it. My prior vision of the ‘30s and the actual reality of it didn’t quite line up. For example:
My vision: door-to-door doctors
Reality: state hospitals, insane asylums, and poor medical care
My vision: Sassy kids running fun and fancy free about their neighborhoods.
Reality: Boy and girls forced to drop out of school at early ages (as my grandfather did) to work in mines or around their farms.
My vision: community socials and picnics
Reality: A fiercely segregated and prejudiced society (especially here in the South); a terrible time of the KKK and oppression of minorities.
My vision: a romanticized picture of old-fashioned farmers working their fields
Reality: widespread overworked soil, drought, and plummeting produce prices
My vision: home-cooked meals with no microwaves or boxed dinners in sight
Reality: frugal eating that would likely cause many of us nowadays to grumble
My vision: buying an assortment of food and necessities for less than a dollar
Reality: needing the food and necessities but lacking the dollar
After years of researching the 1930s, would I chose to live it? No. But I’m still in love with it. Why? Because I believe the Depression is a stirring example of the toughest of times bringing out the best in people. True, not everyone handled their burdens with grace, but many did—people like my grandparents and Florence Owens Thompson. Under the worst of circumstances, folks all across America rose to the occasion—children and adults alike—doing everything in their power to care for one another. In my mind, this era remains a perfect picture of the strength of the human spirit and our inexhaustible will to survive. Perhaps that is the “good” in the good ol’ days. What’s not to love about that?
Laura Golden is the author of EVERY DAY AFTER, a middle grade novel about a young girl learning to let go and find her own way amidst the trials of the Great Depression. It is set to release from Delacorte Press/RHCB on June 11, 2013. You can find out more about Laura and EVERY DAY AFTER by visiting her website or following her on Twitter and Facebook. Laura would be delighted if you added EVERY DAY AFTER to your Goodreads reading list.