An absolutely fascinating snapshot of a town hit hard by the Great Depression.  As one who never lived through anything so terrifying, I was always intrigued by how emotions — particularly fear and doubt — can affect something so math-based like the economy.  And how the (over)reactions of a few can drastically ruin the lives of so many.

Ted Gup, former writer for the Washington Post, is given a suitcase that has been in his grandmother’s attic for decades.  When he finally gets around to investigate its contents, he discovers hundreds of letters, thank you notes and cancelled checks.  Even more mysteriously, they were addressed to a Mr. B. Virdot.  Putting his bloodhound skills to use, he digs up the history of these desperate missives — and some secrets about his own family.

B. Virdot was really Sam Stone (who was really Sam Finkelstein), a Romanian Jew who fled persecution, along with his family, at the turn of the century.  He was a relatively successful businessman in the retail clothing business when the Depression engulfed the country.  Canton, Ohio was particularly hard hit because so much of the local economy was based upon the numerous factories headquartered there.  The unemployment rate there hovered around fifty percent.  And those with job security like grocers and doctors were often traded on a barter system.

Virdot opened a bank account with $750.  He then placed an ad in the Canton Repository asking people to share their stories with him.  He intended to send those most worthy $10 each.  He was so inundated with worthy pleas that he ended up sending $5 to 150 people — just days before the Christmas holiday in 1933.  Such a transaction probably never would have happened if Virdot had not promised to keep their stories and identities a secret.

Sam Stone, aka B. Virdot
Sam Stone, aka B. Virdot

The letters that Sam Stone kept reveal more to us now than they ever would have to their neighbors then.  But true to his word, he never let on that he was B. Virdot or that he knew anything about the secrets that had been shared — even though he would have seen their faces for many years afterward.  Their stories vary, but two things are consistent.  The writers are relieved to be able to tell someone, anyone about their plight, and they are heartened that anyone would even offer help.

Gup sifts through dozens of these letters and finds out what happened to these families after the check was cashed.  In some cases, Gup contacted descendants and read the letters to them.  Most had no idea, but a few remembered that Christmas and being surprised by the doll or the new pair of shoes.

The stories are touching and Gup’s research is very thorough.  The only weakness is the sometimes repetitive presentation of the letters and Gup’s contextualization.  At times his background as a investigative reporter overtakes a narrative subtlety that the stories benefit from. Still, the book is a spellbinding glimpse into a time that most Americans wished to put behind them.  Yet in this great Recession it does us well to remember where we came from, and where we might go again if we repeat the mistakes of the past.

View more photos and scans of the letters here: http://www.asecretgiftbook.com/
Many thanks to the folks at Penguin Press for the review copy.

6.14 x 9.25in
368 pages
ISBN 9781594202704
28 Oct 2010
The Penguin Press
18 – AND UP