Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Eleventh Hour Can't Last Forever

Publisher's Summary. This highly unusual family memoir opens with these paragraphs:

Two tons of silver and gold coins, hundreds of thousands of nickels, dimes, quarters, and gold pieces. They were under our beds, in the kitchen cupboards, up in the attics, in the bottom of dresser drawers, in holes in the ground. My father was obsessed with gathering up these coins and hiding them away in any likely spot in the houses and garages and store buildings he owned in our tiny town on the mid-Western prairie. Nothing could shake his belief that the total collapse of the American economy and government was just around the corner, a collapse that would bring anarchy and rioting in the streets.

With this shadow of Armageddon always hanging over him, Dad believed that he could save his family from disaster only by collecting as much gold and silver as he could lay his hands on.

This fear of a future calamity that might leave his family penniless so dominated Dad's thoughts that he failed to see how his blind absorption in amassing wealth created family problems that would lead to his oldest son's hopeless alcoholism and his wife's mental collapse. My sister grew up so insecure that she eventually turned to the stars for answers to the frustrations of her life, immersing herself in the study of astrology. In the fairy tale, King Midas's daughter was miraculously restored to life after she had been turned to stone by her father's desire for gold, but Dad's destructive influence on his family could not be so easily reversed.

Our family home was in the small town of Palisade on the Nebraska prairie. Palisade lay in a flat river valley, and the hills that surrounded it on all sides cut off any extended view of a world beyond. Since rainfall in southwestern Nebraska was meager, the countryside yielded only a few scattered cottonwood trees clinging to the banks of the river or the tiny creeks trickling into it. The only large plants to survive on the open prairie were sunflowers and tall weeds that dried up in the autumn into prickly golden tumbleweeds that rolled restlessly over the fields, driven by the relentless winds sweeping across the plains.

When I was a child, Palisade had a population of 799. Everyone vaguely thought it should have been possible to come up with one more living soul to push us to the more impressive figure of 800, but 799 it was, and from this peak the population declined to 350 in only a few decades. Even the surrounding counties were sparsely populated. Palisade lay halfway between Denver and Lincoln, 250 miles from each–about as far as one could get from civilization in the United States. From the hills encircling the town, one could look for miles in any direction and see only an occasional farmhouse with its straggly windbreak of Russian olive trees, planted because they were one of the few trees that would survive wind and drought.

Hoarding has come out of the closet and into the mainstream pop culture with the hit A&E show Hoarders and books such as Stuff (nonfiction) and Dirty Little Secrets (YA fiction). Joining this hoarding genre is The Eleventh Hour Can't Last Forever by Alison Johnson. In this sad memoir Johnson shares her family's unique hoarding story: two tons of silver and gold!

While many hoarders keep items that are of little value to anyone apart from the hoarder, Johnson's father kept silver and gold coins. Dean Krotter, Johnson's father, the son of a wealthy businessman, believed that another Great Depression was just around the corner. He also had hoarding tendencies (e.g. he once bought thirty boxes of Cross and Blackwell orange marmalade because he feared that it would be discontinued). To prepare for the impending doomsday Krotter hoarded as much silver and gold as he could acquire. Which with his wealth added up to two tons worth. Additionally, given his paranoia, Krotter did not trust his fortune to a bank vault, so he stashed his coins randomly around in the family houses, shed and back yard. Unfortunately, when the inevitable occurred -- when Krotter became feeble due to a stroke -- Johnson and her sister were left to hunt for the literally buried treasure. Further adding to the chaos was the dysfunctional family dynamics between Johnson and her siblings along with her mother's mental illness.

Johnson's family saga is a tragic, but fascinating one. Her vivid descriptions of searching for the coins are astonishing. At one point Johnson confesses:

"[E]ver since I was a child I have had recurring dreams that I am digging in the earth and discover coins. I suspect this is a fairly common dream, although Wells [the author's husband] never has such dreams and says it's in the genes. When we first found the buried coins that day, we were elated. Then as we transferred handful after handful of buried coins, becoming dirtier and dirtier with the brown dust from the earth and the black dust of the silver, an odd feeling of revulsion set in, and we started to feel bored and exhausted with whole operation. In fact, it soon became a joke among Wells, Diane [Johnson's sister] and me that one of us would go off looking somewhere and come back saying, 'Bad news, I found more coins!"


To paraphrase Tolstoy, Johnson's family dysfunction is unlike any this reader has ever read. If you enjoy outlandish, but true stories then The Eleventh Hour Can't Last Forever is a must read memoir!

Publisher: Cumberland Press (2008), 191 pages.
Review copy provided courtesy of the publicist.


  1. If you have to hoard something, silver and gold would be good! I have a feeling that was more about insecurity than hoarding and that her father had lived through the Depression.

  2. WOW I will be noting this memoir down for my TBR list. Riveting and who would have thought that despite hoarding all this silver and gold it would be an insane search on their property. Made me think of buried treasures games we play with our kids.
    Great insight and thanks for bringing this up to the forefront.