Monday, March 29, 2010

Prairie Apocalypse : Years of Dust: The Story of the Dust Bowl by Albert Marrin

I noticed a low dark line of what I first thought was a cloud along the northern horizon. It made no sense. There was not a cloud in the sky. As I watched, it got taller and spread from the west to the east horizon. The black mass was coming on so fast.... The front of the cloud was a rolling, tumbling, boiling mass of dust and dirt about two hundred feet high, almost vertical, and as black as an Angus bull. It came across the prairie like a two-hundred-foot-high tidal wave, pushed along by sixty-mile-per-hour wind. After the front passed, the darkness rivaled the darkness inside a whale resting on the bottom of the ocean at midnight....

On "Black Sunday," April 14, 1935, a monster dust storm, over 1000 miles long, stretching from Canada to Texas, appeared out of a brilliant blue sky, travelling 1500 miles before it blew itself out over the Gulf of Mexico. The overcast from its fallout darkened skies as far east as New York City and left most of the Great Plains adrift in dust which covered houses, barns, and roads up to fifteen feet deep.

Residents of the high plains, most first- and second-generation pioneers drawn to the cheap and seemingly fertile land of the Great Plains after the Civil War, felt as if they were trapped inside a deadly Armageddon, a cycle of unexpected drought and unimaginable dust storms unknown to people of European descent up to this time. Crops, already pitiably sparse from several years of drought, were totally destroyed. Farmers, who only a decade before had known rich harvests and built prosperous towns and neat farms, saw the double demons of Depression and dust destroy everything they had worked for.

In financial ruin, repossessed and dispossessed, the once independent landowners and thrifty tradespeople of the entire region piled whatever they could carry into whatever vehicle had not been taken away by the banks and headed, heartbroken but still hopeful, toward the West Coast in hope of finding work, any work at all, even sending their unschooled children out to pick cotton or strawberries in the fields of California or Oregon. Those less fortunate hopped freight trains or even set out on foot, trying to make it to any place that could offer them food and work. "Hoovervilles" sprouted at highway and railroad crossroads, and men fought over piteously low wages just to keep their families alive.

It was a time for those who experienced it perhaps worse than any our nation has known, when nature itself seems to have foresaken us. Yet, it was in many ways our own doing, born out of our own lack of knowledge of the land. The earliest comers nearly exterminated the indispensable buffalo and the prairie dog, no friends to farming, and their plows, the fabled "sodbusters," broke up the shallow-rooted grasses which had held the scant moisture and thin topsoil in place over the centuries; and when the unnaturally rainy cycle of the early twentieth century faded, the high plains became the semi-arid area which they truly are. Wind had always been a constant there, its steady roar enough to drive some early settlers mad, and with drought and no grass to hold the soil, it began to blow away, taking a fragile, shallow-rooted farm culture with it.

Albert Marrin's Years of Dust (Dutton, 2009) is an absorbing and rich account, rendered in beautiful but child-friendly language, which with its eyewitness accounts brings home the very feel and taste of the time:

All we could do about it was just sit in our dusty chairs, gaze at each other through the fog that filled the room and watch the fog settle slowly and silently, covering everything--including ourselves--in a thick, brownish gray blanket. The doors and windows were all shut tightly, yet those tiny particles seemed to seep through the very walls. It got into cupboards and clothes closets, our faces were as dirty as if we had rolled in the dirt; our hair was gray and stiff and we ground dirt between our teeth.

A beautifully designed book, with cover, photographs, and headings in the same sepia-gray as the dust itself, Years of Dust brings history home in lovely, evocative prose which puts the reader right into those hot, dusty farm trucks creeping west:

The desert had no mercy. Anyone who wandered into it, even a short distance, was bound to get lost and die of exposure. There was no air-conditioning back then, so those crossing in daylight wrapped damp towels around their heads. The windows stayed open, sending a hot breeze through the car.

This epic exodus brought vast changes to America which reverberated far into the second half of the century, and in its apocalyptic warning against imposing our will, willy-nilly, upon Mother Nature still rings strong today. Gradually, rains returned, albeit unpredictably, to the region, but prairie towns continue to vanish to this day and farmers have had to adapt their methods to the harsh environment which is the true nature of the high plains.

Filled with strongly evocative photos, many those iconic stills created by Dorothea Lange, this is a piece of nonfiction perfectly adapted to the middle reader who wants to get behind the quick paragraphs in their history textbooks and see into the heart of those terrible, yet valiant times which tested the timbre of our people. A generously designed book, it offers informative sidebars, maps, posters and newspaper pages, and glimpses of such figures as Woody Guthrie, Franklin Roosevelt, and Chief Seattle, whose prophetic words still speak straight to us today. Marrin covers the man-made remedies to the Depression-Dust Bowl tragedy--the New Deal programs which put millions of men to work and millions of children back to school, the changes in agriculture which stabilized the soil, and the voluntary relocation of population to more productive locales--but it is the faces of the people, especially the children of the Dust Bowl, whose eyes look straight out at us and say to us that they are willing and determined to do what they have to do, that best tell the story of those times.

The author concludes with a brief consideration of "future dust bowls," mapping the current deforestation of areas such as the Amazon basin and the Sahel. He writes

The worst tragedies in history have owed more to human folly than to nature. But what has been, need not be forever. People make their own history--it does not make them.

Ample appendices--with glossary, bibliography of nonfiction and fiction, film, music, and web links--make this book a solid source for further study.

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  • I think I shall have to get this for my kids to give to my husband - he's just finished The grapes of wrath and also Wallace Stegner's The Big Rock Candy Mountain and this book could continue the theme but with our kids!

    By Blogger Playing by the book, at 2:38 PM  

  • Order it right here--one click away!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:32 PM  

  • You did a great job with this review. I'm going to hunt this one down. Thanks!

    By Blogger Sarah Campbell, at 8:40 PM  

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