Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A happy childhood in America

How Dear To My Heart, Emily Kimbrough

I found this at Half Price Books a few years ago, and I bought it along with another of Emily Kimbrough's books, Forty Plus and Fancy Free, which describes a trip she took with three friends to France and Italy in 1953.  The group ended up in London for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, which Emily covered in radio broadcasts for CBS.  I found the book pleasant enough, but not to compare with Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, and it didn't immediately inspire me to read more of her books.

What did finally get me to take How Dear To My Heart off the TBR pile was reading We Followed Our Hearts to Hollywood, about her adventures with Cornelia Otis Skinner in the movie business.  This book was published a year later, in 1944, and I wonder if writing the first had sparked the second.  Emily Kimbrough was already an established writer and editor at magazines like the Ladies' Home Journal, but following these two books she went on to write several more, travelogues and collections of essays. 

In the Foreword, she writes,
"In these pages I shall not write an autobiography. I shall try only to write something about a happy childhood in America. A childhood that was happy in great part, I think, because it was spent in a little town, where I was not a stranger to anyone. And so I am setting down these things, partly out of a debt of affection to the town, and partly because I would like to say over, for those of us who remember them, some of the things which we shall never see nor hear again. The lamp on the newel post lighted with a wax taper held high in the Winter dusk . . "
I wonder too if the Second World War played a part in her decision to write this book, with its focus on small-town America, and a way of life that had vanished.

The small town is Muncie, Indiana, where Emily was born in 1899.  An only child for many years, she lived in a close-knit neighborhood that included her grandparents in the "big house" as well as uncles and aunts.  Her book is, as she says, not an autobiography, but a series of vignettes that move through the year from the Fourth of July to Christmas.  She recounts adventures in her grandfather's new automobile, her unpleasant introduction to public school, games with neighborhood children, and all the joys of the different holidays.  The tone is nostalgic, but not sentimental, and while she tells these stories from her child's point of view, she still conveys her retrospective adult understanding.  She keeps hearing comments about something that will soon put her nose out of joint, for example, and the reader can guess that her mother is expecting a second child, but Emily only wonders exactly how one's nose gets out of joint.  She seems to have no qualms about telling stories on herself, all the mischief that she gets into, a far from a perfect child (and her parents have no hesitation in spanking her, even in the middle of a store).

I loved reading all the details of life in these Edwardian years in small-town America.  It reminded me a little of Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy books, set in a small Minnesota town during the same years.  Emily's struggles in school also reminded me of Scout's in To Kill a Mockingbird.   And her life in the community, among her extended family, is an interesting contrast to Cornelia Otis Skinner's more bohemian childhood, told in her Family Circle (which was published four years later).  I will be keeping an eye out for Emily's other books, especially The Innocents From Indiana, about her family's move to the big city of Chicago.


  1. I've been to Muncie and it is still a quaint little place. It must have been a really small town back then. I love reading about small towns and what it is like growing up in one so this sounds very charming to me.

  2. That reminds me, I need to look Muncie up on a map! I'd meant to, because I've been to Indianapolis but I don't know much about the rest of the state.

    I love books about life in the Edwardian age, there's just something about those last few years before the Great War.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!