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Florida Voices of The New Deal

Florida Voices of the New Deal

Looking for the New Deal: Florida Women's Letters During the Great Depression

Edited by Elna C. Green: The University of South Carolina Press, 2007, 243 pages, $39.95

Comparing the Great Recession of the late 2000s to the Great Depression of the 1930s is a popular parlor game these days. The similarities are even more striking when you focus on Florida.

The Depression kicked Florida when it was down. When things went south economically in 1933, the state had the southeast's highest unemployment rate and had just suffered two major hurricanes, a land boom and subsequent bust, and the inauspicious arrival of the Mediterranean fruit fly. The homeless and jobless considered it a relatively good place to live, because at least it was warm, and they crossed the border at the rate of about a hundred per day.

By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt took office and the New Deal was signed into law in 1933, the women of Florida had come to see both their president and Florida governor Doyle Carlton almost in loco parentis. Both had campaigned tirelessly and Carlton often visited their hometowns, and many felt they knew them and could count on them to help with almost anything: finding work, getting short- or long-term loans, buying land, getting a husband out of jail, forcing deadbeat dads to pay child support, qualifying for widow's pensions. So hundreds of them put pen to paper and asked.

Women of every background, race and socioeconomic situation wrote letters to Tallahassee and Washington during 1933-40, the years covered in this book, which is itself a part of a series Women's Diaries and Letters of the South by The University of South Carolina Press.

Very often, instead of addressing the president or governor directly, they appealed to the men's wives. Women wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt asking her to slip her husband their letters over breakfast and personally intervene on their behalf. In letter after letter, they detailed their previous efforts to help themselves, indicating that their appeals to her were a last desperate resort. They wrote as though their letters would be read, their stories remembered and their requests fulfilled. "I sent the President an Easter Card and poem—wonder if he read it," one wrote.

Looking for the New Deal is plaintive and heartbreaking. Reading it gives you an idea of what might be in many of those emails showing up in the White House today as the nation ponders another deal for yet a new day of dire need.

-Kim MacQueen