Talk about Trouble: A New Deal Portrait of Virginians in the Great Depression
Dierenfield, Kate Murphy, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Talk about Trouble: A New Deal Portrait of Virginians in the Great Depression. Edited by NANCY J. MARTIN-PERDUE and CHARLES L. PERDUE, JR. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. xxii, 493 pp. $45.00.
WHEN a Virginia Writers' Project fieldworker asked Alleghany County farmer Daniel Arritt to share his life history in 1939, Arritt replied, "I had never thought of havin' a history" (p. 41). Nancy J. Martin-Perdue and Charles L. Perdue, Jr., have assured that Arritt and other "typical" Virginians receive their rightful place in the history of Depression-era Virginia. The New Deal's VWP prepared more than 1,300 life histories between 1938 and 1941, intent on compiling "a book devoted to the lives of typical Virginians" (p. 1). That aim went unrealized when World War II erupted.
The Perdues have ably rescued "this too-long-forgotten and endangered documentary resource." They have carefully edited sixty-one of these interviews into a social and cultural history rich in detail, personal tragedy, and pride. To establish the authenticity and context of these narratives, the editors provide extensive background data on both subjects and interviewers. The narratives are complemented by 160 photographs taken by the Works Progress Administration and the Farm Security Administration. The poignant images alone make this book a worthy Depression documentary.
The photos and narratives are sewn together into a carefully pieced patchwork. The pictures reveal despair (an exhausted Roanoke farmer plowing his equally exhausted soil), racism (separate-andunequal schools), and hope (proud new home owners at Aberdeen Gardens, the one black suburban resettlement project). The narratives range from resentful former coal miners displaced by younger workers to CCC employees grateful for jobs, from the elderly parents of ten struggling to save their run-down farm to a single, well-paid cigarette packer. There is even the atypical tale of the wealthy socialist-pacifistvegetarian "Culpeper Cat Lady" who filled her estate with discarded pets. Although some tales are admittedly more colorful than enlightening, the editors excel in showing the diversity of life-styles, travails, and survival strategies in the Old Dominion. …