Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Great American Dust Bowl

 “…history is that old woman
    Sitting in a doorstep
    eating lemons”  
                      Le Roi Jones
  I don’t know exactly when I fell in love with history, but it has been a major interest of mine for decades. I do remember memorizing the Presidents AND Vice-Presidents of the United States in order in third grade and knowing the start and end dates of a ton of wars. I was a reader and super-curious; I asked a lot of, “How “and “Why” questions that drove my parents and teachers crazy.  So it seems inevitable that I would love and later teach US and World History.

 By junior high I was beyond the dates and famous people. I was looking for connections and cause and effect that linked events. I was growing in the depth of my questions and of my reading,  And then, somewhere in high school, what history meant really hit me: HIS- STORY. STORY! That was what made it all come together for me. I became interested in the interactions between people and history. Yes, big events and theories were important. Major players on the historical arena mattered. But what really drew me in were the stories. How did big events affect common people? How did common people affect events? What did it mean to be a ‘worker” at a certain time and in a certain place? What was it like to be a 12-year-old girl in a certain part of the world at a certain time? What do farmers really do?? I needed to know those stories and more.

I say all of this because I am thoroughly engrossed in a wonderfully written and moving book called, The Worst Hard Time; The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.” Written by journalist Timothy Egan, it is an in-depth look at the people who stayed in the Great Plains even as nature seemed to turn on the human species. I knew a little about the Dust Bowl and I knew some things about the Great Depression: I have read several historical books and historical novels about that time period.  Many of us who were “folkies” in the 60’s are familiar with the songs and stories about the traveling hoboes of the Depression: Woody Guthrie wrote many great songs about “Okies” and families always on the road and desperately looking for a place to work and to settle. Many of us are also familiar with the book and the film, The Grapes of Wrath. All of those were largely about people who left the Dust Bowl and wandered. Egan’s work, though, is about those who stayed behind. The ones who tried to live through the Dust Bowl. I always meant to see Ken Burns’ film, “The Dust Bowl,” but I never got around to it. I do know now that I will see it as soon as I finish this book.

 The power and beauty of this book for me is that it looks at more than just the historical events and science of what led to the dust storms that devastated an area larger than the state of Pennsylvania: an area that stretched from half of Kansas to parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and 1/3 of Texas. Egan tells the stories of the people in that area at that time. People who stayed throughout the storms and what their lives were like. He gives detailed looks at individual people of different ages and backgrounds and what it was like to live in a sod house or an underground dugout. Or what it was like to shake someone’s hand and be knocked down by the static electricity contained within the dust. What it meant to plant a crop of wheat and have no rain for two years. How some families had to rotate the days of the week on which each of their children could eat in an attempt to make their meager food supplies last. How towns had to deal with invasions of hundreds of rabbits, grasshoppers, tarantulas and black widow spiders. What it was like to take a breath and have your throat fill with tiny particles of dust.  And what it was like when the dust repeatedly flew so heavily that it blotted out the sun.

 The Plains had a surprising mix of people, and Egan also gives us backstories of the different people there and how they got to the Plains. Why so many German-Russians came from the Volga River area across thousands of miles to settle. How Jews wound up in the Oklahoma panhandle. How the Homestead Acts of the mid 1800’s led  to a flood of people of all types-Welsh, Irish, African-American and more, trying to find work or make a claim and get rich planting wheat during a “wheat boom” that suddenly went bust. And what about the Naive Americans who had settled it first? Egan ties all of this together in a way that is involving and compelling. He transports us there, and we don’t just read about it. We feel it through and through. He takes a part of our history that most would rather forget and brings it back to life. The book has plenty to teach us, especially in light of our now near desperate climate crisis. Maybe, just maybe, we can learn something from it in time to help us reverse our own environmental disaster.
(Here is a link to  Ken Burns’ PBS film, The Dust Bowl. Timothy Egan was a consultant:

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