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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Great American Dust Bowl, written and illustrated by Don Brown. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Thomas Allen & Son, 2013. $21.99 ages

"Bugs that should have died in colder, wetter weather or been eaten by birds and bats killed by the drought now turned up everywhere. Centipedes crawled across ceilings and walls, tarantulas marched across kitchens, and black widow spiders lurked in corncribs and woodsheds. The ants were so thick and so bad that you could swipe handfuls of them off the table and still have more ants on the table."

I have read other books about the dust bowl that plagued the plains over a ten year period in the 1930s. It was a bleak and devastating time. Don Brown makes that clear in his new book about this natural phenomenon that destroyed lives, families and the land they loved. He has done his homework, and he presents his audience with exemplary art and text to help them understand why those who lived through that time remember every real and terrible detail of life as they lived it then. The Dirty 30s impacted each and every one of them for the rest of their natural life.

He begins by showing the terror of a dust storm, for all those in its path. The wild animals are frantic to get out of its way, the farmer is quick to realize how dangerous it can be, and a text box provides context for that day in April 1935 when a 'savage storm' roared its way across the plains:

"Panicked birds and rabbits fled. The temperature plummeted fifty degrees. Electricity coursed through the air. Frightened people raced to the nearest shelter."

This story had its beginnings in an earlier time. The author helps readers learn about the land itself, and how it was formed, how buffalo roamed the plains in untold numbers, how the bison sustained the Indian population, how settlers forced the tribes onto reservations and then killed so many bison that they soon had to be replaced:

"Ranchers and cattle replaced the Indians and buffalo."

Those ranchers did not know that cattle would have great trouble existing through the blazing heat of prairie summers and the brutal cold of winter. When they failed in their attempts to make a life for themselves they convinced farmers that they could make a go of it, if they just worked hard...from early morning until late at night. That provided a very scant livelihood for too many.

The war in Europe led many to believe that riches would come with wheat. The people of the world needed food, and who better to provide it than these hardworking farmers?  With the end to the war, the demand for their wheat dropped off. The Depression made things worse. To add more misery to an already miserable existence, the rains stopped. For the next ten years, those who lived on the plains endured more than can be imagined by those of us who did not live through it:

"The worst storms, black blizzards, brought dust-filled darkness. People lost their way in the storm's gloom, and sometimes suffocated to death. Storms could blow for days and be immediately followed by another and another, making for unrelenting blows for weeks on end. Raging grit-filled winds shattered windows and scoured the paint off houses and cars. Trains derailed. Telephones were knocked to the ground."

The art that Mr. Brown creates to accompany his 'gritty' text does nothing to sensationalize the telling. It matches the matter-of-fact-tone chosen to give readers the goods on a terrible time in American history. With the ever-growing interest in graphica, this book is sure to interest a wide range of readers. Its story is sombre, as is the art. It is also carefully told, and worthy of your attention.


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