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February 09 , 2008

Me 'N' Alvin

Growing Up in the Great Depression


Essayist and poet Thad Box experienced poverty first hand as a small boy living on a tenant farm. His poems present a child’s eye view of one of our country’s major events. The Great Depression spawned a social and economic upheaval in American culture as great as the revolution that formed this country. With the possible exception of the Civil War, no event in our nation’s history has been as significant. The people who lived through the Depression become fewer with each passing year. Most who were adults at the beginning of the depression are gone. Box’s poems make history live through the tales of children.

“Me ’n’ Alvin” describes the joys and disappointments of a ten-year-old boy during the time between the stock market crash of 1929 and the attack on Pearl Harbor. Although it is about sharecropper children in the Central Texas Hill Country, it captures the hopes and dreams of poor kids everywhere who do not consider themselves poor.

Box tells the stories through a series of narrative poems written in the vernacular, yet poetic voice of Hill Country people. He describes life of subsistence farmers and the heartbreak of being displaced by well meaning New Deal government programs. Games played by children, the wonder of becoming “rich” when the make-work dam construction pays 40 cents an hour, Sunday dinners, and celebrations are told through his eyes and with the voice of a precocious child.:

Doing what hound dogs do or finding out about birds and bees are woven into the poems. Learning the facts of life was not just about sex. It often involved becoming aware of the problems of grownups: the lack of money, the stress of being put off the farm, the knowledge that the family was poor. But the joys of a child exploring his poverty cocoon, the love of his parents, the thrill of learning all become part of understanding the facts of life.

A child’s curiosity about sex is not ignored. The boys knew about billy goats, Maltese jacks, and roosters because their function on the farm was part of the natural process. But making the transition from understanding animal breeding to girls was an unending mystery.

The book covers the time from shortly after Franklin Roosevelt’s election in the 1930s until the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was a time when many farm families were moving to California in search of a better life. Hobos and gypsies traveled from town to town in search of food. Soup kitchens filled less than basic needs of major cities.

Obituaries of people who lived through these times fill newspapers across this land. This book is unique in that it captures a child’s view of one of the major social changes of our country. The poems teach history with a smile.

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