Saturday, October 17, 2009

plus ca change. . .

First-Person America edited by Ann Banks (973.91 FIR Main)

Reviewed by Susan Wolfe

Wow. The more things change, the more they stay the same…

This is an old book. But boy, oh boy, is it ever appropriate for today. I ran into it earlier this year because a local book club chose it as their read. I patiently (sort of) awaited for it to become available, and then couldn’t put it down.

People are people regardless of their surroundings and times. Last fall the stock market crashed. People have been concerned how (or if) they can survive this economic downturn. That is the magic of this book. It reminds us that hard times may appear on the horizon, but it has all happened before. That this nation is a mosaic of survivors who have seen change shape and guide their lives. We survive. We can both live and enjoy our lives regardless of the larger environment.

This book chronicles 80 life histories of men and women who lived during the late 1800s and through the 1930s depression. In fact, this book is a creation of the Federal Writer’s Project, which was created to help young writers survive during the economic disaster of the 30s. Some of these writers went on to become famous themselves – Jack Conroy. Ralph Ellison. Some of these oral histories became the basis of characters in their later writings.

The plan of the Federal Writer’s Projects was to provide a portrait of the country by interviewing people from all backgrounds and occupations. This book is a wonderful collection of life stories. Some of which span a lifetime, others cover only a short period of a life. There is a whole section devoted to workers. Armor foods at one time would fire their workers after they turned 40. People would lie about their age. “Momma” was fired because she gained 15 pounds. She cussed ‘em, and was told that they were doing her a favor because she would die otherwise because of her weight. Others chronicle their role in the beginnings of organizing labor. Several stories come from tobacco farmers. Stone workers. Musicians. Even a prostitute down on her luck. Hardship. Happiness. Devotion. They are stories of both good and tough luck. In other words…life. You will see yourself in some of their stories. I certainly found shared feelings and thoughts.

Several of these oral histories are developed around what they considered the most important events of their life. Like Mrs. M.F. Cannon. She grew up on an Eastland County, Texas stock farm and was interviewed at the Masonic Home for the Aged. She shared her youth, falling in love and starting life with her new husband. Another good story is about Bernice Gore. He told about the hard economic times in New York City. How when the rent was due, neighbors were invited to a get-together with music, food and corn liquor and charged an entrance fee of fifteen cents. He recalled “You couldn’t walk down Lenox Avenue without hearing music from a dozen rent parties.”

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom has been a blockbuster book recently. It is about one old man sharing his wisdom with a young man. A dynamite book. First-Person America is every bit of that but multiplied by 80.

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