Reviews for Secret Gift : How One Man's Kindness--and a Trove of Letters--revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression


Booklist Reviews 2010 October #2
Investigative reporter Gup researched a file of Depression-era letters preserved by his family. They were responses to a Canton, Ohio, newspaper notice that Gup's grandfather, using a pseudonym, had placed in December 1933, which offered a monetary gift and, perhaps more importantly, a promise of anonymity to recipients of his charity. That tapped into social attitudes characteristic of the Depression generation--pride in self-reliance matched by mortification to be seen accepting help, overlain with disdain for complaining. Those characteristics vividly animate Gup's remarkable portraits of the letter writers, which encompass their backgrounds, their bewildering descent to destitute circumstances, and the influence of the Depression on their own and their children's subsequent working lives. A subplot involving the identity of Gup's advertising grandfather, who, for unknown reasons, obfuscated his birth in Romania, also productively interacts with the main plot of what motivated his manner of giving money away at Christmastime. Highly affecting emotionally, Gup's empathic portraits should powerfully pique memories in Gup's readers about their own family's experience of the economic trauma of the 1930s. Copyright 2010 Booklist Reviews.

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Kirkus Reviews 2010 July #1

Former investigative reporter Gup (Journalism/Emerson Coll.; Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy and the American Way of Life, 2007, etc.) unravels the knotty but fascinating story of an anonymous act of benevolence performed in an Ohio town imploding under the pressure of the Great Depression.

In 2008, the author received an unlikely treasure from his elderly mother: an old suitcase that once belonged to his grandfather. Inside, Gup discovered a cache of letters and cancelled checks, all involving a man named B. Virdot, who, during Christmas 1933, placed a notice in the Canton Repository announcing that he would present 75 families with $10 each—a considerable sum in 1930s America—if they explained their need. So many applied that Virdot altered the amount to $5 and helped 150 families. Gup quickly realized that his own grandfather was B. Virdot—a name fashioned from the names of his daughters. During the next couple years, the author sought every remaining thread of this compelling tale. He visited surviving family members, found the lone surviving letter writer, visited libraries and cemeteries and historical societies, interviewed more than 500 people, scoured the Internet and pursued another story—that of his grandfather. Known as "Sam Stone," owner of a clothing store in Canton, he was actually a Romanian Jewish immigrant named Sam Finkelstein who lied for decades about his biography. Gup artfully weaves together the stories of the recipients (and their descendants) and the story of his grandfather, gradually revealing as much as he was able to discover about him. At age 93, Stone died in Florida in a freak car accident on a drawbridge and took to the grave the story of "B. Virdot." Only occasionally does the author veer into the maudlin and predictable.

Wrenching stories of suffering, loss, endurance, humility and gratitude.

Copyright Kirkus 2010 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

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Library Journal Reviews 2010 September #2

Former investigative reporter Gup (journalism, Emerson Coll.; Nation of Secrets) presents a compelling story of charity and perseverance. He provides a snapshot of life in Canton, OH, during the Great Depression and relays his discovery, after finding a "trove of letters" addressed to one B. Virdot, of missing pieces of his grandfather's life. B. Virdot turns out to have been an alias used by his grandfather, clothing store owner Sam Stone, as he gifted several families with $5--a significant sum during the Great Depression. Initially, these acts of kindness appear random and reveal little about an enigmatic yet caring man. However, it is through the thank-you letters from families touched by the kindness of B. Virdot--and through Gup's relentless quest for answers--that readers learn the full story of Sam Stone. VERDICT Although history buffs won't find new ground covered, Gup's narrative style combined with first-person accounts and profiles of the recipient families put a human face on this part of history and make this an inspiring and informative read, best for history novices.--Tamela Chambers, Chicago P.L.

[Page 85]. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2010 September #1
In a book grown out of a New York Times op-ed piece that drew a huge response, Gup (The Book of Honor) explores an unusual act of generosity by his grandfather, Sam Stone, during the Great Depression and other mysteries of Stone's life. Discovering a trunk full of old letters addressed to "Mr. B. Virdot," Gup soon learned that the letters were responses to a newspaper ad Stone ran before Christmas 1933, anonymously promising $10 to 75 of Canton, Ohio's neediest families if they wrote letters describing their hardships. (Some of the heartbreaking letters are reprinted here.) But Gup soon learns that Stone had other secrets: the jovial, wealthy businessman had escaped a horrific childhood as a Romanian Jew, immigrating to America and reinventing himself to fit into all-American Canton, Ohio. Gup also tracked down families who benefited from Stone's gift to discover the impact it had on their lives. Gup paints sobering pictures of "the Hard Times" and the gift made by a successful man who hadn't forgotten his own hard times. (Nov.) Copyright 2010 PWxyz LLC

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