Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters from Children of the Great Depression. By Robert Cohen. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. 266 pp.
Faith of Our Mothers. By Harold I. Gullan. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001. 394 pp.
In Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters from Children of the Great Depression, Robert Cohen adds a distinctive piece to the history of the era of the Great Depression. Eleanor Roosevelt received thousands of letters from young people requesting her help in dealing with problems arising from the poverty of the depression. Both the president and the first lady received many more letters in general than preceding administrations. The Roosevelt administration encouraged people to look to the national government for help in overcoming economic hardships with the New Deal legislative programs, and thus we should not be surprised to find people responding on a personal level to the two people who most represented that administration.
Robert Cohen has assembled an excellent book that not only adds to our knowledge of how the depression affected lives of Americans but also places the letters children wrote to the first lady in an analytical framework that helps readers more fully understand the depression and appreciate the magnitude of its grip on the country. The organization of the letters leads him in some areas to challenge conventional wisdom about the effects of the depression. For example, the letters show that within communities, not everyone suffered similarly. Children expressed feelings of being shamed by their family's poverty. The letters also suggest that family structures during the depression were more positive than the portrait of collapsing parental authority painted by many social scientists and historians of the time.
Each chapter begins with an introduction in which Professor Cohen draws conclusions about the social system that flow from the letters of these young people. The first two chapters focus on needs for food, clothing, and shelter as well as on educational needs. Then chapter 3 emphasizes the disruption the depression caused in young people's social lives. Children write about Christmas gifts and Easter outfits as well as the inability to get married because of the lack of any kind of a financial future. The youth culture hurt poor young people dearly, as they expressed in their letters to Eleanor Roosevelt. Chapter 4 deals with minorities--blacks, the disabled, and immigrants--and with...