It has been said that great times make great men. Well, the Great Depression certainly was a ‘great’ time, at least in its historical significance, and no doubt it did produce some great men, or at least some great stories about ordinary men, tales that often are elevated to an almost legendary stature. Maybe it’s because we as Americans have an appreciation for people who never give up and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, or maybe it’s because, when they had lost everything else, their land, their living, sometimes even their families, the poor folks who lived through this worst, hard time still had their stories.
Over the last few years, I’ve read a handful of books set during the Great Depression that have made me wonder if and how I would be able to survive such tough times. The first was the biography Ava’s Man by Rick Bragg. In it, Bragg tells the story of his grandfather Charlie Bundrum, a man he never met, but whose greatness had lived long after him in the stories told by the people who knew him. Charlie was a moonshiner and jack of all trades who did whatever he could to feed and clothe his family. Charlie was illiterate but wise, tough as nails and yet devoted to his wife and seven children, and despite his extreme poverty, he maintained a dignity that was not arrogant but generous. Because the man’s life is told through the eyes of an admiring grandson, it’s easy to see the bias in the story, but it’s that same bias that makes it such a grand tale.
Next up came Rilla Askew’s Harpsong, a novel about a drifter and his young wife as they travel around Oklahoma and its neighboring states riding the rails and camping in Hoovervilles. Told primarily through the eyes of the 14-year old bride Sharon, the story follows her and her husband, Harlan Singer, a virtuoso on the harmonica, whose search for an old man named Profit could very well be the search for his own redemption, and whose folksy wisdom and bank robbing exploits become the stuff of local legend.
And lastly, my most recent read on this era was the novel Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Gruen’s main character, an elderly Jacob Jankowski, begins his tale as a student with a bright future following in the footsteps of his veterinarian father. However, when both of his parents are killed suddenly, Jacob, in a daze, hops the next train that passes through town. Upon discovering that the train belongs to a traveling circus, he finagles his way into a job caring for the wide variety of exotic animals on the show. Soon enough though, he takes on the new task of rescuing a feisty and not so helpless damsel in distress from her sadistic husband, who also happens to be Jacob’s boss. Being a circus man, Jacob knows how to sell the audience a good yarn, even if some of the details might be embellished.
I don’t know if I’d have what it takes to survive the ordeals, real or fictional, that these men faced. One thing I do know though is that if I did make it, I’d have some great stories to tell.