How discovering the truth about her banker grandfather enabled the author to unlock much that has been forgotten about the Great Depression era.
A chance conversation with her father launched Echols (History and Gender Studies/Univ. of Southern California; Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, 2010, etc.) on an investigative journey that included attempts to elicit remembrances from her mother and visits to libraries in search of the real Walter Davis, a building and loan officer in Colorado Springs. The discovery of boxes of material after her mother died was crucial. The family had passed down the story that the unmentionable grandfather was an embezzler, and he was driven to suicide after desperate efforts to generate cash from his life insurance policies to pay off some of the creditors of his insolvent bank and try to provide for his wife’s future. In the author’s hands, her family’s story becomes a counterpoint to Frank Capra’s feel-good romance It’s a Wonderful Life, with Jimmy Stewart as the small-town banker. But it is more than that, as Echols sets Davis’ story against the background of the financial excesses of the 1920s, which led inexorably to insolvency, bankruptcy, and the catastrophe of the Great Depression. Like her family’s own history, much of this back story has been largely hidden or blocked out, but Echols revives it. Back then, excessive house construction and shady mortgage finance led to insolvency and financial collapse, a situation that calls to mind current practices. Throughout, the author’s personal story meshes well with her history of building and loan associations. “The collapse of these associations,” she writes, “like the all too common failure of state-chartered banks, affected millions of Americans.”
A lively and informative treatment in which one man’s rise and fall opens a window onto a long-overlooked historical landscape in all its finely drawn detail.