Yes, I’m late again.
It took me a bit to get over the shocking shut down that happened at book club this month, hence my late post. It saddened my heart because the perpetrator didn’t even realize what she had done.
The whole point of a book club is to discuss, in a safe environment, what everyone loved or hated about the book.
Yes, even that extreme of emotions.
No one’s opinion should be worth less simply because it differs from our own. One person’s experiences are as valid as another’s even if they make us uncomfortable. So many people today are using peer pressure to keep others from arguing with them. With mutual respect we can all air our thoughts and still part way as friends. Part of life is accepting those different from us. If you are willing to keep an open mind, then please, join me in discussing A Secret Gift.
Everyone wanted to love A Secret Gift as the premise is so amazing. Can you imagine someone taking their last bit of savings, all of $750, and advertising to give it to families in need? Sure, during the depression $10 and even $5 went a really long way to easing hardship, but even if they gave every family $100 instead of $10 or $50 instead of $5, I simply can’t imagine anyone being that generous. As a society we view the poor as something the government should take care of and keep from marring our day-to-day lives. So yes, it’s a pretty exciting concept that everyone could relate to. It even fit so well in our real-life, non-fiction theme this year. And that was the problem.
The author, Ted Gup, is a renowned journalist who worked under Bob Woodward. You can read all the accolades to him here. As a former investigative reporter I expected a great narrative, winding through the lives of the 150 families effected by his grandfather’s anonymous donation. We wanted to be shown the Great Depression through the lives of those who had a brief, bright light shone on them by Sam Stone. Sure, learning why Gup felt Sam made this generous gesture was part of the narrative. And we truly wanted to know, but first show us why his grandfather’s act was so important.
Now I know I’m making this book sound terrible. That it doesn’t fulfill all these expectations. Really the story does show us about the people. They’re just smothered under a litany of numbers and facts we don’t care about. What we got was a whole lot of research on the Depression, weighing down the heart-warming and uplifting story we excepted. A little reorganization and this book would have its readers flying through the pages. It would capture young and old hearts alike (not that the young weren’t captured but they are less tolerant of heavy material and are more prone to putting down a book that is poorly organized.)
Really it wouldn’t have taken that much effort and it would have freed up more pages for letters!
So you are probably wondering how I would reorganize the book if I’m so smart. Thanks for asking! There was three types of information that Gup was disseminating to us about the Great Depression.
#1 – The Letters
Besides the organizational problems, one other thing peeved me about this book: the lack of letters. Why in our modern times didn’t we see, at least, some of the originals printed in the book?
He had the originals!!
I wanted to see them.
They didn’t need to be on glossy white pages. Screen printed on the regular pages would have suited the nature of the book anyway. The photos too could have been included, not stuck in the middle of the book but, with the stories they pertained too.
What I’m saying is above and beyond any other element of this story we wanted to see the letters. To know the people who went through such a rough time. A major mistake was introducing the rich men’s letters first. I was seriously thinking about putting this book down! In particular, hard to bear was reading about Frank J. Dick and how because his career was never as successful again that he was somehow a disappointment.
Anyone who loved toys that much didn’t live a disappointing life! So he was never the same man again – maybe that was a good thing, maybe that man was a selfish prick or one just for show? Perhaps he simply felt deeper now? And this is where Gup’s skill as a journalist came to play. He reflected, very well, what the families felt about the letter writer. However, to start with the disappointed rich families would not make us want to read more.
At first, I thought Gup was just a terrible writer, distant and focused on financial and worldly success rather than moral and family success. It felt like his narrative was determined to be the very opposite of the warm and touching story you’d expect about generosity. In fact, it took me a long time to even realize it was the descendants who decided the tone of the passages about the letter writers and their families. It was Dick’s family who felt he “never recovered” not necessarily the writer telling their story.
One of the best written letter sections is only 4 full pages. “Too Big Hearted” is about a grocer, Charles Winters, who lost his business because he let people take on credit and didn’t get enough back to stay afloat. Centered around the letter, the letter writer and a little of the man’s family and why they loved him, it’s the perfect example of what this book could have been. A marked lack of unnecessary research, paired with zero digression into other unrelated and less interesting non-letter writing people really made this family shine. Gup funneled the family’s feelings and thoughts on the man and the lesson he left his family into a commentary about the Great Depression and our lives today! This is what A Secret Gift should have been.
More letters demands more organization. A letter a chapter would be just right and some letters could have stood on their own with the bare minimum added to them. A Secret Gift, at its heart, was about the letters Ted Gup found, the letters written to his grandfather, Sam Stone, at the instigation of an ad he placed in the newspaper.
#2 – Facts about the Depression
It was obvious Ted Gup did an amazing amount of research on the Great Depression. He also tried to keep those facts pertinent to the background of the letters or of Sam. They were the most repeated element in the book. These dry facts could be found by anyone googling the Great Depression, we definitely didn’t need them repeated over and over again. These facts though made great natural divisions in the letter writers.
Some of the writers were women writing because their husbands were too proud or weren’t in the picture. Some of the writers were rich with failed businesses. Some of them were tradesmen. Some had to leave the city for the country. Some wouldn’t take welfare. Some are long time Canton families still prominent in the city today. A few were such unique stories they stood out from the crowd.
I got all of these from natural groupings Gup made of the letters. By deliberately grouping the letters in this way you can preface a whole group with a short factual synopsis explaining the theme as it relates to us and how different thinking was back during the depression.
It wasn’t that we don’t want to have access to these facts or the patterns that Gup learned about through his research, we just only needed them in small doses as they pertained to the letters. If readers love dry facts then they’ll read about them but if a reader doesn’t they’ve been neatly stored so as not to drag down the story. In fact, a reader is more prone to reading such fact filled sections when they are short (a few pages) and concise.
These natural groupings of letters would have helped focus what the reader could derive about the Great Depression. With the random, fluid way these facts were thrown into the story the reader didn’t feel any purpose to the patterns. A little organization makes it easier for the reader to grasp all of the salient points of the author. You could revisit such a book to brush up on certain details. As it stands you’d read A Secret Gift once and never return to it again.
#2 – Sam Stone’s Story
One of Gup’s better written sections is near the beginning where he talks about Sambo, the nickname he called his grandfather, Sam Stone. You really fall for Sam at this point and want to know more about such a man who would live a life of such generous proportions. I wish every section to do with Sam were written with the same personal eye as this section.
In organizing the book, starting with Sam’s story as one long narrative would have been a great jumping off point. It would have gotten rid of duplication and conjecture as the unnecessary was stripped from the story. Then breaking down Sam’s story into separate sections and weaving them in between the themed groupings of letters would have made for a powerful combination. Sam’s story and how it pertained to the letters and how the letters pertained to his story laid out in a clear and straightforward fashion would have made such an uplifting message about how other’s lives should touch and affect our own. A powerful yet personal message.
By pulling Sam’s story apart from the letters and the factual information more space could have been devoted to anecdotes about Ted Gup, the grandson and Sam Stone and the journey Gup went on to learn about the man. (Loved the WWII coats story and wanted so much more like this!) So much was repeated in Sam’s sections that it became hard to read. I get it that, for Gup, it was a major thing to conjecture why Sam chose the letters he did. I was sick of hearing about it. I genuinely liked Sam Stone and wanted to hear more about his life, but not at the expense of endless conjecture.
Tell Sam’s story, tell the letter writer’s stories, explain a little about the times and ways of the Great Depression then get out of our way and let us decide! Let us think and ponder. Let us make the connections since Gup has no way to confirm or deny his own assumptions.
Lesson: Start it Right
I believe that the start of A Secret Gift while not bad, put Ted Gup on the road to this emotionally rich but bogged down story. By highlighting the letters to do with Christmas, like Elizabeth Bunt’s “A Special Time” where her love of Christmas came about due solely to B. Virdot the reader would have known right away the heart of the book. That it was unselfishly focused on Sam and not about Ted Gup and the research he’d done (as the Charles Dicken’s start suggested). Setting the tone of this biography in such a matter would have focused Gup as a writer.
The end would have led to Helen Palm and the last unfound letter writer and the fact she was alive! His incredible meeting with her would have been a wonderful, uplifting finish. Instead we are, yet again, bogged down by a depressing end – Sam’s senseless death. Piled on that is a research story that illustrated how this story cried out for a little organization! This would have made an excellent first section of Sam’s story and the start of Gup’s family research, as it is it makes a terrible ending of A Secret Gift. In fact, if I hear another word about Canton I’m liable to do something dangerous. Such is the effect of a bloated story.
I really dislike that instead of leaving me warmed through, A Secret Gift makes me happy at the idea of Canton wiped off the face of the earth, because then I’d never have to read about it again!