"To keep the furnace going, her brother-in-law was dispatched to collect coal that had fallen off the coal cars along the railroad tracks. The apartment was sparsely furnished. At nine, Valerie still slept in her parents’ bedroom in her baby crib."A Secret Gift by Ted Gup is the non-fiction account of how one man placed an ad in the newspaper during the depression for those in need, ultimately giving $5 (about $100 in today's terms) to 150 families to help them have a Merry Christmas. The book begins with an ad placed in December 1933, but manages to capture so much more than just a single Christmas, in A Secret Gift Gup manages to capture the entire spirit of the depression, and how in the midst of a time where families were starving and children were going without shoes a single act of anonymous kindness can make such a difference. The man responsible for the secret gifts was actually Sam Stone, Gup's grandfather, and it was only after his grandmother had passed on and he was sorting her belongings that Gup came across a suitcase of the letters sent to his grandfather over seventy years before.
The amount of research Gup did in order to write A Secret Gift is insanely impressive, as he shares many of the letters individuals wrote and then delves into the circumstances which lead them to write the letters- including a refusal to rely on charity and an inability to find work. Gup follows up with the descendants of the letter writers, unfortunately learning that in many of the cases the families were never able to recover from the depression. Given that much of the world is currently suffering through a major recession, A Secret Gift provides a valuable reminder of how good we still have it. As a result of the depression, social welfare programs were put into place meaning that even when times are tough families rarely have to decide between milk or shoes for their children. It is heartbreaking to read about how many children died as a result of starvation and malnutrition in a country so often admired for its advances and technology. I particularly appreciated Gup's attention to the role that women played during the time period and how they were often the first to be let go when it came to work, even in situations were they were the only breadwinners in their families.
The only complaint that I have when it comes to A Secret Gift is Gup's attempt to maintain suspense when it comes to Sam Stone's motives for wanting to spread his limited wealth during the holiday season. Gup makes it seem as if Stone has a big secret hidden in his past, and although it is true that his history is something that was better kept under wraps while he was alive due to legal reasons, I hardly think it provides the "ah-ha" moment that Gup seems to imply it will. Another aspect of the story I found particularly interesting was the fact that despite doing something that could be considered the epitome of spreading Christmas cheer, Sam Stone was actually Jewish. In addition to knowledge about a difficult time in history, A Secret Gift leaves its readers with strong lessons about the inner strength people have, parents going without food to feed their starving children, children going without school in order to work and help feed their families. Gup reminds the reader of the value of even a small gift to a person in need, especially one which is given selflessly and without desire for recognition, and it's ability to make a positive impact not only on an individuals life but by extension for many generations to come. ****
Number of Pages: 368 pages
Published: September 2010
This review was a part of TLC Book Tours. Click here to read what other tour hosts thought. For the purpose of this review I was provided with a copy of the book which did not require a positive review. The opinions expressed in this post are completely my own.