September 20, 2010
A Hunger Bookshelf

Since we are observing Hunger Action Month, I scanned the Novel Conversations stacks for books in the collection that depict or discuss hunger. I also asked our participating libraries to send me suggestions. Here are three fiction and three nonfiction choices:

1. Little Women: Early in this Civil War-era novel by Louisa May Alcott, the four March girls give up their Christmas breakfast to a poor family, the Hummels, who have no food and no firewood. Amy heroically takes them the cream and the muffins, her favorites, while Meg packs up the buckwheats. The March family is itself in financial straits, but they sacrifice their treat for another family in even more desperate need.

2. The Grapes of Wrath: The Great Depression forces many families out of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to a land of greater promise in California. The Joads, forced off their rented farm by economic and environmental disasters, head west where they again find poor conditions for farm laborers. John Steinbeck was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and eventually a Nobel Prize for his literary achievements.

3. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: I just finished this novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece, Annie Barrows, and it’s a genuine must-read. The heroine is Juliet Ashton, a writer who begins a correspondence with a wonderful cast of characters on Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands. The islands, in the English Channel, were occupied by the Germans during WWII, and the residents suffered deprivation, cruel punishments, and separation from their children. Trying to cover up a roast pig party, they quickly thought up the “literary society” as an excuse for being out after curfew. Juliet’s adventures with the people she meets through letters and eventually in person are warm, funny, sad, and sometimes crazy, but the story of the occupation is told bit by bit as the book unfolds.

4. Hard Times: Studs Terkel has a series of oral histories he collected; this one is about the Great Depression. One woman, Dynamite Garland, told him about her father, who had been a railroad man before the Depression. She describes what people had to do in those days of 25% unemployment: “He could always find something to feed us kids. We lived about three months on candy cods, they’re little chocolate square things. We had these melted in milk. And he had a part- time job in a Chinese restaurant. We lived on those fried noodles. I can’t stand ’em today. He went to delivering Corn Flake samples. We lived on Corn Flake balls, Rice Krispies, they used to come out of our ears.”

5. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life: This chronicle of a family’s attempt to eat local and grow its own food involves hunger of a different kind as they find out how difficult it is to change your way of eating. Author Barbara Kingsolver, her husband Steven L. Hopp, and their daughter Camille all contribute to this best-selling book. The first step, if you want to try this experiment, is apparently to move from Tucson to Virginia, where the changing seasons bring changing recipes. (Sharon Elliott-Fox, one of our reading group coordinators in Scott County, suggested this book and the next one.)

6. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America: Journalist Barbara Ehtrenreich took low-wage jobs in several locations across America, to see what would happen if she tried to live on the kind of money made by a worker at Wal-Mart, a nursing home aide in Maine, or a waitress in Florida. Rent turns out to be the biggest problem. “Food, though, I pretty much got down to a science: lots of chopped meat, beans, cheese, and noodles when I had a kitchen to cook in; otherwise, fast food, which I was able to keep down to about $9 a day.”

Looking back at these selections — all of which are available from Novel Conversations — I think Ehrenreich has put her finger on it. It’s about Getting By. That is the challenge for people undergoing hard times.

This post was written by Nancy Conner, director of grants and coordinator of Novel Conversations for the Council.

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