Surviving Hardship: What We Can Learn From History

From Woman Writers, Women’s Books:

People sometimes ask why I chose the Great Depression as one of the central time periods of my novel, Waltz in Swing Time. After all, they reason, it’s a dreary chapter in history. One bookseller remarked, “we don’t want to relive it.” 

Perhaps that’s why a surprisingly large number of twentieth century historical novels take place instead during World War II. Wonderful books such as The NightingaleMotherland, and All the Light We Cannot See feature heroic protagonists — soldiers, spies, medical personnel, ordinary citizens — who defy or resist totalitarian governments, despite great personal danger. 

In the thirties, United States citizens didn’t struggle against an oppressive regime, but many suffered severe hardships after losing their jobs and income. The country faced an economic divide between the wealthy bankers and Wall Street investors whose reckless speculations may have precipitated the crash of 1929, and the rural communities who struggled to keep their farms as their crop income declined and they couldn’t make mortgage payments.

This may sound all too familiar. In fact, not only did I write about the Depression because of its odd under-representation in historical fiction, I chose it because I see striking parallels between the economic inequality of the thirties and our current economic climate. 

. . . .

In Waltz in Swing Time, Irene Larsen and her family struggle to make ends meet on their farm in Utah. They’re forced to sell prized possessions and take in boarders, and they watch neighbors lose their farms to bank foreclosures. Unfortunately, this was an all too common reality in the thirties, where in the U.S., the unemployment rate rose as high as twenty-five percent. In urban areas, some homeless Americans lived in shantytowns known as “Hoovervilles,” and reluctantly turned to soup lines for meals. After FDR took office as the nation’s thirty-second President in March 1933, his New Deal programs gradually began turning the tide; and the Depression officially ended with the start of World War II.

In their own way, the people who made it through the Depression were heroic. Sure, they didn’t rescue injured airmen from burning planes or smuggle Jews to safety through the Pyrenees, but they made tough choices and sacrifices for their families and communities. Many of them came together to help each other through difficult times – buying back farm possessions at penny auctions, for example, or raising community gardens to feed neighbors. 

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