The Depression is one of the periods of this century that I know very little about. Other than reading about it in passing in some books and coming across the tons of references and side-jokes when the current recession hit, I knew almost nothing about it. Sure it was a hard time, a lot of people lost their jobs, but that's probably the limit of my knowledge. Ted Gup's book, A Secret Gift, is a memorial to his grandfather, Sam Stone, whose simple act of reaching out monetarily to a few families during the Christmas of 1933, made Christmas so much more merry for most of them.
Ted Gup accidentally came across a briefcase of letters, when his mother was clearing out a cupboard. Inside it, he found letters upon letters, and 150 canceled checks, in addition to other memorabilia. Reading these letters took him back seventy-five years to an unsolved mystery when a certain B. Virdot promised to send money to 50-75 families. His only condition was that they write to him about their true circumstances. Neither their identities nor his own would ever be revealed. Which would have been honored, until, of course, this briefcase was found.
I began to read through them, beginning with those that looked most legible. They spoke of hunger and cold, of endless searches for work, of dead ends and growing doubts. I was startled by their candor and disturbed by the grim terrain they described.Ted Gup starts writing in this amazingly captivating manner, that I found hard to put down, even if at 3 in the morning. I hold him responsible for the two times I reported late at work, totally oversleeping on one occasion. Thank goodness it snowed that day. Partly my immersion was also due to my avid fascination with family history. It's immensely satisfying to know more about the people in your family, especially in roles you've never seen them in. Of course, you never want that knowledge to taint their reputation. Ted Gup's discovery only elevates his respect for his grandfather.
To say that the stories were interesting to read about would be to pass a mistaken impression that they all had happy endings. Because many didn't . They could be plain depressing reading about on their own. Most take on bleak tones. The writers are too proud to publicly ask for help or charity. No one really wanted handouts. They all wanted a job. They might all have slammed doors in B. Virdot's face had he walked up to them and offered a five-dollar bill. But the anonymity of the offer gave them a chance to let out their troubles. What saved the letters from being dreary was they all showed triumph of the human spirit in them. What mostly won my respect was that every letter (at least every one that I remember) mentioned that if they were considered worthy of B. Virdot's check, then they would like to spend it on their family - usually the little children who would otherwise have a very gloomy Christmas.
The timeliness of this novel cannot be better appreciated. While not a Christmas novel at all, it evoked in me all the sentiments that Christmas stands for. The sacrifices, the love, the yearning to give kids a wonderful day even though there is no money for the same. What also surprised me was that most people down on their luck would usually think of saving any extra money they get or using them for emergency expenses such as rent or food. And yet, it warmed me that some just wanted to put a smile on the faces of their kids, make them feel great even if for just one day, by giving them gifts within their means. I can hardly fathom how they must have tried to decide what to do with that five dollar check. We can only guess and assume. As Ted Gup says,
Only in hindsight could one be tempted to romaticize the Depression, to imagine it as a kind of ritualistic purification of the American soul.Some of those who wrote to B. Virdot were very successful before "The Crash". Overnight, they became paupers. Others were always struggling. The Depression reduced them further. The first to suffer were usually the women. Almost automatically, women were laid off from work. This was an especially hard pill to swallow for those women who were the sole breadwinners of their family - the widowed or the divorced. It was interesting reading how every one of those situations share some form of common ground with Ted's grandfather, the benefactor. But at some point, the repetitive narration got a bit tiresome because of the frequent comparisons, especially since the reader had by then come to look for the similarities him/herself. It didn't help that there were quite a few typos that nagged at me. Ted Gup's book could have done with a better editing.
I received this book for free from the publisher via TLC Book Tours.