305: It is Well with My Soul by Ella Mae Cheeks Johnson

by Gerard

305.48896073: Johnson, Ella Mae Cheeks (with Patricia Mulcahy). It Is Well with My Soul: The Extraordinary Life of a 106-Year-Old Woman. New York: Penguin, 2010. 195 pp. ISBN 978-0-14-311744-5.

Dewey Construction:

  • 300: Social Sciences
  • 305: Social groups
  • 305.4: Women’s studies
  • 305.48: Specific kinds of women
  • +896073: African-Americans

Ella Mae Cheeks Johnson was just your average socially-minded retiree. She served on community boards, maintained correspondence with various groups, churches, and friends. She gave when she could and took only when she needed. There is, however, one thing makes her stand out as she wrote her memoirs: she was 105 years old and still kicking.

Before I get into this book, I want to take a second to talk about this area of the Dewey Decimal Classification. Much like everybody has a junk drawer somewhere in their house, filled with rubber bands, batteries, odd tools, receipts, spare change, thumbtacks, and various other bric-a-brac, so does the DDC. The 30x division is the dumping ground for books that don’t really fit anywhere else. Social science is such a broad field that it can hold the outliers of all the other disciplines. 305 and 306 are the worst offenders: 305 is “social groups” and 306 holds “cultural studies.” Almost everything that doesn’t immediately satisfy the requirements for the other sections can be wedged in here. If I were so inclined, I could spend a lifetime reading books in just these two sections. As I write, I have 39 books to choose from between the two. So there’s that.

Now, on to Mrs. Johnson. Born in Dallas in January 1904, she was orphaned at the age of four and went to live with a family who, although enjoying their empty nest years, took her in. These early kindnesses were not forgotten. Each place she went, from childhood to Fisk University for her BA to Case Western for her Master’s, she sought the help of others and almost immediately paid it forward. Her career as a social worker allowed her to constantly oversee those who were getting aid and help those in need.

As an African-American brought up in the Jim Crow South, she understood the need for social change but also how to effect it without grandstanding. When she retired in 1961, she traveled the world in search of a greater understanding of both herself and her faith. In her later years, she remained active and cheered on the achievements of her family, her community, and her nation. One of her last official acts was to attend the 2009 inauguration of President Obama (bundled in two coats and a sleeping bag to ward off the brisk January winds).

While the vast majority of the book is Johnson’s, Patricia Mulcahy helps pull it together, interweaving family interviews with Ella Mae’s recollections to give a truly interesting view of history. It gets bit preachy in the middle (when she talks about her faith, the Middle East, and politics), but somehow it’s not forceful. Having experienced over a century’s worth of events, Johnson employs a deft balance of perspective and poise. It’s Tuesdays with Morrie without all the schmaltz and cliche.