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Originally published Saturday, November 20, 2010 at 7:02 PM

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Book review

'A Secret Gift': A trove of letters, a hidden history of hard times

A review of "A Secret Gift," which tells the story of author Ted Gup's grandfather, who used a pseudonym to advertise his willingness to help people with their hardships during the Great Depression.

Special to The Seattle Times

'A Secret Gift: How One Man's Kindness — and a Trove of Letters — Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression'

by Ted Gup

Penguin Press, 365 pp., $25.95

A week before Christmas 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, B. Virdot of Canton, Ohio, placed a small advertisement in the Canton Repository newspaper offering to send modest financial help to readers who would write him telling of their hardships. Seventy-five years later in Kennebunk, Maine, Ted Gup found a suitcase in his mother's house filled with replies to that long-ago ad, a discovery that led to the uncovering of many family secrets — and to this highly engaging book.

B. Virdot's act of kindness had been lost in the mists of history. Gup knew nothing of it, so imagine his surprise at learning that B. Virdot was actually his deceased grandfather, Sam Stone. And that was only the beginning; like the peeling of an onion, when Gup began investigating, secret after secret came forth.

Gup, an author and chair of the journalism department at Emerson College, gradually reveals the facts he unearthed, such as that his grandfather's real last name was Finkelstein. He claimed to have been born in Pittsburgh, Pa. Though his family had lived in and continued to have connections to Pittsburgh, he actually was born in Romania. All his life Gup believed that Sam was an only child, whereas he had several siblings.

But learning the reality in its completeness is part of the pleasure of reading "A Secret Gift," so it would not be fair to reveal more. Suffice it to note that, for legal and personal reasons, Sam created a web of lies to fill in the years he did not want looked into.

The city most central to Sam's life (and to Gup's family) was Canton. There he ran a clothing store and became a wealthy man — and committed the compassionate act that is the heart of Gup's book.

No one knows how many replies B. Virdot received — hundreds, perhaps thousands. He had planned to give $10 each to 75 respondents, but, apparently overwhelmed by the outpouring of need, he decided to give $5 to 150. In 1933 even $5 was a welcome amount to a desperate family. The author focused on 50 of the letters. Through researching records and newspapers and interviewing about 500 descendants, he tells what happened to the writers and their families.

Several letters are reprinted here. Their tales of poverty, sickness, joblessness and hopelessness, told in simple and sometimes imperfect English, are heartbreaking. To many, the knowledge that someone cared was almost as important as the prospect of financial help. They are never self-pitying. The descendants, too, found the B. Virdot story heartbreaking when told of it. Decades later they remain reluctant to talk about their families' poverty for complex reasons rooted in the mores of those times.

Gup believes that part of Sam's motivation was a need to connect with the letter writers, to "reach out in a human way" that would provide "some measure of spiritual comfort as well." The traumatic difficulties he had had to overcome in his early years led him to devise B. Virdot's gesture as a way to achieve a sense of belonging with fellow humans enduring their own sorrows and burdens.

Gup writes, "Only in hindsight could one be tempted to romanticize the Depression." Still, both he and descendants make observations betraying a whiff of nostalgia for a time when "people were kinder," when the less poor helped the poor.

To some it feels as if we are heading there again. Another woman says, "It was a terrible time and it was a good time, and I feel like we are maybe coming into that time again because we have lost some of the understanding." We shall see.

Roger K. Miller is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer and reviewer. His latest essay, "Benning's School for Boys," appears in Southwest Review.

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