Coming of Age in the Great Depression: The Civilian Conservation Corps Experience in New Mexico, 1933-1942 , by Richard Melzer, Yucca Tree Press, $25.
During the Great Depression many industrialized countries, such as Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland, and Canada, for example, created youth work service organizations. Many of these organizations performed nature conservation or rural access work in forested or remote regions. Almost all of these differing organizations were regulated and administered using military methods. In some cases, such as in the United States, national armies were called on to plan, form, support, partially staff, and administer work camps.
Richard Melzer, a professor of history at the University of New Mexico’s Valencia campus, has written a concise, entertaining, and informative account of an American experience in this Depressionera youth work service movement. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was no small project. It involved some three million young American males working from hundreds of widely dispersed camps for nearly a decade. It also occupied a considerable percentage of the leadership talent of the U.S. Army. A large portion of the CCC effort was concentrated in the American Southwest, a region containing much federal property and many of the nation’s forests and most scenic parks.
Melzer’s book, describing the activities of the forty-plus CCC camps in New Mexico, does not make an attempt to tell the nationwide story of the organization, and that limitation is a part of this account’s charm. By narrowing the examination to the corps’ activities in only one state, the author is able to explore local leaders’, state authorities’, and ordinary citizens’ perspectives on the CCC. He can specifically describe and evaluate CCC work in greater detail than he could if he were to address the effort on a nationwide scale. And, depending as he has on many personal interviews, Melzer provides several differing attitudes and viewpoints. In short, Coming of Age is bite sized but still comprehensive.
Melzer’s focus is on the CCC’s effect on the maturation, education, and training of American youth during a period when the normal school-to-work cycle was largely inoperative. The military history portion of the book would seem to be somewhat sparse. However, the author has much to offer a reader who is interested in the Civilian Conservation Corps’ contribution to America’s military mobilization on the eve of World War 11. Although New Dealers tried to minimize the military indoctrination and training aspects of the corps, it appears the CCC gave the United States armed forces a healthy leg up when it came time to catch up to the Fascist nations in terms of war preparations. Coming of Age is well worth the time.