Q. Your family is Jewish. Why a Christmas gift?
A. My grandfather was born an Orthodox Jew, born speaking Yiddish, keeping kosher. When he got off the boat from Romania, in 1902, he became a not-untypical secularized American Jew. He was still proud of his faith, but he had a Christmas tree in his own home every year. [B. Virdot's gift] is also, in a strange sense, very much in keeping with the Jewish tradition that the highest form of giving is anonymous, where the donor seeks no benefit in return.
Q. Many immigrants altered their names and details of their histories to become American. What was remarkable about your grandfather's rewriting of his past?
A. There was a great deal of fabrication going on. The immigrant generation were frequently reinventing themselves. He was extraordinary, and yet not. People of that generation demonstrated such grit, such determination and such humor in the face of so many obstacles, that in many ways my book is not about my grandfather, it's about the formation of American identity. He was so intent on becoming an American that he couldn't wait to do it the right way. I think that was not at all uncommon.
Q. B. Virdot's gift of $5 per family wasn't a huge amount of money — the equivalent, you say, of about $85 today. What impact did it have on people's lives?
A. Things were so inexpensive then that it was enough to buy an entire family a Christmas dinner and have stocking stuffers. In a landscape that was bleak and devoid of any hopeful features, it changed that landscape for that Christmas. It was emblematic of civic engagement, of community, of neighbors. And the idea that this was someone who asked nothing for himself, that the donor could be anyone among them, that mystery also multiplied the effect of the gift.
Q. For this book, you did an astonishing 500 interviews. What were your most exciting finds?
A. There were a couple of things that were just mind-boggling. I was all done with the book. I had found all the descendants of the letter writers that I had sought — with one exception, a 14-year-old letter writer named Helen Palm. I tried so hard to find one of her descendants, and had given up. I decided one afternoon, I'm going to try once more, and eventually I finally found her daughter Janet. I was interviewing her, asking her about when her mother was born, when she married, was about to ask when she passed, when she interrupted me and said, "Would you like to talk to her?"
Q. What did you do?
A. I nearly fell off my chair. The idea that there was a living letter writer was something I had never imagined. She was 90 when I spoke with her, and the thing that was doubly remarkable is that she remembered writing the letter, she remembered using the money to buy shoes and to take her family out.
Q. How many descendants of the letter writers knew anything about the gift?
A. Very few.
Q. And how did they react to learning about it so many years later?
A. In many instances, they remember a particular Christmas getting a gift, when all the other Christmases they didn't. But they did not know that their father or their mother had reached out to B. Virdot. The people given copies of their parents' and grandparents' letters, most of them wept. It was a very emotional event.
Q. What convinced you that you needed to tell this story?
A. Part of the reason that I became increasingly convinced I should write about it in late 2008 is that America was descending into the greatest recession since the Great Depression. Everywhere there were signs of hardship. My sister lost her job, my brother-in-law lost a job, my mother's travel business suffered profoundly. No one was immune. It made me think two things: One, people started referencing the Great Depression. And having read these letters and absorbed them, I realized that this was not the Great Depression, and that I could provide some degree of perspective. But also I could provide some support that we would get through this — because we got through worse.
Q. What are some of the differences between this recession and the Great Depression?
A. One of the profound differences between then and today is that there are myriad nets to catch us, or at least to break the fall. There was no Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation when this story occurred, there was no Social Security, there was no unemployment [compensation], no Medicaid — none of the many things that actually came into being largely because of the suffering that these people experienced.
Q. What impact would you like this book to have?
A. I don't want these people to be forgotten. This is the story of Canton, Ohio, but also the story of every town in America in this period. This book may create something of a "no-whine" zone. There are many people that are hurting today. But the difficulties that many Americans face today are very different not just in degree, but in kind. People in 1933 were not fretting because their 401(k)s took a haircut — they faced a padlock on their bank and the loss of a life savings. When I started this book, I asked the descendants in their 80s or 90s if, as children, they ever went to bed hungry. I stopped asking that question early on because the response was, "I don't remember not going to bed hungry." We can draw strength from that knowledge and their examples. The character, self-sacrifice and the community coming together provide exemplars for today.
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.