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Book Cover Image: A Secret Gift by Ted GupTitle: A Secret Gift: How One Man’s Kindness–And a Trove of Letters–Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression

Author: Ted Gup

Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books): “Shortly before Christmas 1933 in Depression-scarred Canton, Ohio, a small newspaper ad offered $10, no strings attached, to 75 families in distress. Interested readers were asked to submit letters describing their hardships to a benefactor calling himself Mr. B. Virdot. The author’s grandfather, Sam Stone, was inspired to place this ad and assist his fellow Cantonians as they prepared for the cruelest Christmas most of them would ever witness.

Moved by the tales of suffering and expressions of hope contained in the letters, which he discovered in a suitcase 75 years later, Ted Gup initially set out to unveil the lives behind them, searching for records and relatives all over the country who could help him flesh out the family sagas hinted at in those letters. From these sources, Gup has re-created the impact that Mr B. Virdot’s gift had on each family. Many people yearned for bread, coal, or other necessities, but many others received money from B. Virdot for more fanciful items-a toy horse, say, or a set of encyclopedias. As Gup’s investigations revealed, all these things had the power to turn people’s lives around- even to save them.

But as he uncovered the suffering and triumphs of dozens of strangers, Gup also learned that Sam Stone was far more complex than the lovable-retiree persona he’d always shown his grandson. Gup unearths deeply buried details about Sam’s life-from his impoverished, abusive upbringing to felonious efforts to hide his immigrant origins from U.S. officials-that help explain why he felt such a strong affinity to strangers in need. Drawing on his unique find and his award-winning reportorial gifts, Ted Gup solves a singular family mystery even while he pulls away the veil of eight decades that separate us from the hardships that united America during the Depression. In A Secret Gift, he weaves these revelations seamlessly into a tapestry of Depression-era America, which will fascinate and inspire in equal measure.

Thoughts: Reading A Secret Gift over the Thanksgiving weekend, the timeliness of the novel could not be ignored. Mr. B. Virdot placed his ad right before Christmas of 1933. Rather than worrying about getting the best deal on electronics or toys, most people then were worried about finding enough money to pay for their next meal. The contrast is almost appalling. As commercials and advertisements blitz audiences with fantastic sales, and as consumerism continues to drive the holidays, one cannot help but compare two generations in their abilities to cope and to offer hope to others.

A Secret Gift is not a novel to be read quickly over a short period of time. Rather, one has to read it slowly, only because the shame and despair behind each letter is difficult to absorb. Often full of grammatical errors and written by people with little to no formal education, the sheer need behind each letter is heart-wrenching. The stories of what occurred in each family after receiving the gift is no less poignant. For some, Mr. B. Virdot’s gift was a high-water mark in a life filled with hardship and poverty. For others, it was the means by which they were able to turn their lives around for a future filled with unparalleled success. There is no rhyme or reason why some families were able to succeed so well while others continued to flounder, which makes the stories that much more difficult to stomach.

Mr. Gup does an excellent job of putting the Depression into context; the recipients of the gifts were already used to hard times and a life filled with danger. They were already survivors before situations got worse in the 1930s. This only helped them buckle down even further and find ingenious ways to continue to survive while maintaining their dignity. Written during the “Great Recession of 2008-2009”, the parallels between then and today cannot be ignored. Given today’s ease of living, even during the recession, would current generations be able to adapt and survive as well? The fact is that there is a reason why those who experienced the Great Depression rightfully earned the title of The Greatest Generation, and it is unlikely that any subsequent generation would ever be able to measure up to the amount of suffering that generation was able to overcome.

Mr. Gup’s unraveling of the mystery of Sam Stone is rather anti-climatic given the suffering presented in the letters. Mr. Stone’s life story is just as tragic, yet by 1933, he was able to weather the Depression in relative comfort. Yet, his remains a remarkable story of selflessness. The personal nature of the offer, the fact that he alone decided who would receive the money and who would not, rather than letting an agency decide, makes the act more poignant and more real. Again, it raises the question whether such an act would work in today’s society.

The comparisons are inevitable, but they in no way lessen the suffering by each letter writer. If anything, Mr. Stone’s gifts and the impact that $5 had on each recipient confirms the idea that the smallest gift from the heart means more than anything impartially given. A Secret Gift will force the reader to reevaluate what it means to suffer, to be poor and what it means to give. It will change the way a reader approaches the holidays and help one appreciate the Greatest Generation all over again.

For more thoughts on A Secret Gift, please check out the rest of the tour:

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