Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Hard Times For Jake Smith: A Story of the Depression Era

Hard Times For Jake Smith: A Story of the Depression Era

Aileen Kilgore Henderson
For ages 12 and up
Milkweed Editions, 1984   ISBN: 978-1571316493

MaryJake lives in the country on a run-down and dusty farm. Her family is poor and somehow they always seem to get poorer with every move that the family makes, and they made a lot of moves. Just in the last six months they have ""relocated"" twice. Why this was MaryJake, or Jake, wasn't quite sure. She does her best to help her parents with the chores and with taking care of her little brothers, and hopes that things will get better. Unfortunately they begin to get worse, much worse. First the livestock begins to disappear, animal after animal. Then, and this really devastates MaryJake, her father takes away her beloved dog Adder. Why were her parents selling everything they could lay their hands on?

MaryJake soon finds out when one day the family packs up the few things they own, pile into the car, and leave the little farm. Before they left MaryJake was told to put on her one and only dress. Then, in the middle of the road, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, her mother gives her something tied up in a handkerchief with the words ""give them this,"" instructing her bewildered daughter to go to the ""rock castle."" Then MaryJake is told to get out of the car.

Before MaryJake quite knows what is happening, she is alone in the road, her parents gone. They have simply left her, abandoned her, without a backward glance. Jake cannot understand how her parents could do such a thing and is filled with rage at their treatment of her. Then she sets off down the road, fuming and wondering what is to become of her. In a clearing in the woods MaryJake finds a hollow tree stump full of water. It is the stump of a black walnut tree and the water within it is brown. When she puts her hand in the water MaryJake discovers that the water stains her skin brown. In a short time MaryJake has performed a transformation. Her skin is tanned looking, her blond hair is brown, and she goes back to wearing her overalls. In this getup MaryJake arrives at the farm of an old lady, a ""Miz Bennet."" MaryJake decides to hide her real name and identity and so MaryJake Wildsmith becomes Jake Smith, a boy without a home. Jake helps Miz Bennet take care of her animals and soon she becomes one of the family.

Still boiling within at her abandonment, Jake begins to create a new life for herself, trying to make and save up money so that she can go and find her little brothers. Jake is sure that the two little boys had been left behind somewhere just as she had been. In the process Jake makes some unusual friends and in the end she discovers that MaryJake Wildsmith is not in fact MaryJake Wildsmith at all. She is someone else altogether and she also is not as alone in the world as she thought.

Brave, resourceful, kind, and often funny, MaryJake is a character who grows on you. You want her to succeed, to find peace within herself. She was just one of the many hundreds of abandoned children who were the victims of the Great Depression. And like so many of them, she had to learn how to adapt to changing situations.

The author of this book gives us a fascinating picture of life in Alabama in the 1930's. We see a kind of poverty that we never imagined could exist in the United States; a poverty where people went hungry for days on end and where one cookie or banana was a fabulous treat. The dry winds of the drought whipped up dust storms, crops failed, and people left their homes trying to find work and a life elsewhere. In MaryJake's story we find a message of hope. Even in the worst of times there are moments of fun, of friendship, and instances when good people end up finding happiness.