On the heels of her death in February comes an intriguing new book examining the legacy of Shirley Temple. Author John F. Kasson confines his study to the child star’s impact on popular culture at a time when escapist entertainment was both luxury and dire necessity. The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression may sound like hyperbole, but Temple’s impact on the nation’s self-image proves unimpeachable.

From humble beginnings in Santa Monica, young Shirley was groomed into star material by her mother, but her talent and charisma were what earned her fame. For four years, she was the top box office earner in the nation; adults complained that they couldn’t get in to see her films because the children in attendance wouldn’t leave the theater. Shirley Temple merchandise sold in the millions, and advertisers learned that marketing to parents through their children was a winning strategy.

Kasson parallels Temple’s success with Franklin Roosevelt’s election and the economic turnaround of the New Deal, describing her as crucial to national optimism at a tenuous moment. One reporter referred only half-jokingly to the TRA or “Temple Recovery Act,” equating her economic impact with that of the government programs of the time.

Little Girl isn’t a tell-all biography, but there’s mention of Temple’s tantrums and her parents’ disastrous mismanagement of her finances, which left her roughly $44,000 of more than $3 million earned. Her mother understated Shirley’s age, most likely to keep the child star young, and lucrative, for as long as possible. Despite such circumstances, she grew into a seemingly normal, well-adjusted adult. The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression will appeal to biography fans, but also to pop culture historians; her influence still resonates today.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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