Book Review: A Secret Gift, by Ted Gup

Ted Gup’s A Secret Gift is actually two different stories. One of them is the story of an anonymous advertisement placed in a newspaper during the Great Depression, inviting people to write in for equally anonymous financial assistance. The other is the story of the man behind that announcement.

I found the letter writing bit more interesting. As Gup illustrates, the letters sent in provide a really valuable firsthand account of conditions during the Depression and they are an incredibly rare resource. Most people do not want to talk frankly about the hardships they experience. Being able to talk anonymously to someone allowed people to really lay it all out on the table and some of their stories are infuriating, sad, intense. This is something we can’t get from interviews conducted during the period, books by people who lived during the Depression. It is rare and amazing and valuable.

I am, as some may know, a fiend for original source documents and I quiver at the thought of being able to look at these letters. To look not just at their narratives they contain but the kinds of paper and pen used, the envelopes, the penmanship. To examine the ways class and race and upbringing intersected with how the letter writers communicated. I’m really sad there are no facsimiles of the letters, only transcripts of their contents.

These letters, over and over, discuss fear of disclosure about the writer’s financial state. They talk about the difficulties families endure and stress that it wasn’t their fault. Some of them were sent in by friends and neighbours petitioning for help on behalf of others, sometimes when the letter writer was just as hard off. There’s a generosity there I really like, especially with the letters sent anonymously or by people who didn’t provide return address information, to make it clear that they really didn’t want help for themselves, just for others.

The descriptions in the letters are vivid and interesting and Gup backs them up with historical information, talking about everything from what it’s like to hand pump water to the unemployment rates of the era. It’s a well sourced book with a lot of detail, which is not a surprise given that Gup is a journalist who has trained under people who are very serious and focused when it comes to sourcing, backing up claims with information, adding colour and texture to a story with intimate details designed to spark the interest of the reader.

Gup attributes the reticence to talk about problems to the era, but I’m not so sure. A lot of people treat the age we’re living in now as one where people are open about everything, spilling about their problems right and left. The Internet is filled with hardship stories and pleas for help, people go to the media, so on and so forth. But I’m not so certain that this is the period of full disclosure. I think there is still a lot of shame about poverty and you will note that a lot of hardship stories widely publicised come from people in the middle classes who have fallen on hard times.

Not from poor people who have been poor all their lives. And I think this is an important distinction. Poor folks are taught their whole lives that they are worthless and what is happening to them is their fault and they don’t deserve anything. Middle class folks grow up feeding on the American Dream and being reminded that they do deserve the world and that they should kick and scream if they don’t get what they need, and what they want.

And even then, there’s still a lot of shame on the part of people speaking out about losses in fortune, just as there was in the Depression. For all that the stories of people who do come forward are publicised, there are many more people who are remaining silent and suffering in silence because that is what they have been trained to do. There are a lot of people who are keeping their hardships to themselves because they think they are supposed to, and to say that people living today are totally unashamed of being frank about their lives is just clearly wrong; I can think of lots of people who are very ashamed. Anecdotes are not anecdata, but I get the sense that this is not an isolated issue.

To be fair, the story about Sam, the man who placed the advertisement, is also interesting and has some intriguing parallels with the modern era. He was an immigrant who pretended to be a legal resident, for a variety of reasons, and lived in fear his whole life because of what he did. A lot of people are living in that position now, but Gup didn’t really seem to draw that parallel. His main focus was on what the drama meant for his family, not what it says about the culture we live in.

He talks about concealing identities and living in fear like it’s a thing of the past when it’s so clearly not. Practically every morning, I read a story about lives destroyed because people came to the US hoping for opportunities, couldn’t do so legally, and created a web to conceal themselves that got picked apart. I read about deportations and I read about abuses of people who are afraid to report because they are undocumented and they fear the consequences of having that exposed. This is not something that happened way back when in the dark times of the past. It is something that is happening right now, and we should probably be talking about that as well, especially since Gup did a pretty good job of talking about parallels between the Depression and the current economic situation. It was like watching someone connect the dots and then get bored halfway through.