Monday, January 04, 2010

The Dust Blows Forward, the Dust Blows Back

I'm nearly finished with Timothy Egan's book, The Worst Hard Time.  About this book, I can say: Wow. My knowledge of the events of the "Dirty Thirties" was limited to the Steinbeckian view generated by The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men.

I had a vague conception that there was a drought and all the dirt blew away. I never thought through the mechanics of "all the dirt blew away." And I never thought about the existence of those "okies" who continued to live there, who did not emigrate to California. Egan's book fills in, in detail, both the mechanics and the biography.

It's especially impressive to me because I don't care for this kind of "metaphorical" history. By "metaphorical" I mean: Egan describes in detail the lives of a handful of families and individuals who lived through the Dust Bowl years. A cowboy with no more cows to punch; a girl who comes to the High Plains as a five year old and leaves as an expectant mother; a newspaper editor; a town doctor; and a dozen incidental characters, who come in and out of focus as their participation in events dictates.

In collecting these stories into a narrative, Egan's intention is to make them a representation of the entire experience of the Dirty Thirties. Of course, this type of narrative is completely subject to the worst sort of distortion; by picking a particular subset of biographies, Egan can portay any "reality" he might wish to portray. What saves the book is that he has tied the stories of the survivors to the ecological causes of the "dusters" and to the political events that arose from them. Thus, we are not completely adrift in a tale of woe that might or might not be an accurate representation of the lives of those families that toughed out the drought.

There are many elements of this tale that strike me significantly.

  • The Federal government actually helped. And it helped, directly and effectively, because FDR was personally involved. He oversaw the design and implementation of programs that would deliver food, money and financial aid to the citizens and families that needed them. The comparison between FDR handling the crises then and Obama managing the crises now could not be more damning to our current President's "Rose Garden" approach. 
  • There were no public "safety nets." If you were a High Plains farmer, your land and what it provided were all you had. If you "went bust," there was no Medicare, no Social Security, no unemployment insurance; nothing.
  • Farmers did not passively accept what happened to them. For example, when banks started foreclosing and holding auctions to sell off seized assets, such as tractors or cattle, the farmers in the community would attend and by prearrangement among themselves, bid a nickel or a dime for each asset. Then they would give the items back to their original owner. When bankers realized what was happening, they tried to put ringers in the crowds, to bid up the sell prices. This stopped after some not-so-subtle threats, like leaving a hangman's noose at the auction site.
  • Education was seen as the ticket to a better life. Kids went to school, throughout the years, studied and graduated. There were periods during which the dusters were so bad, they could not get to school for a week. They persevered. School teachers worked for years for no pay, because the towns and counties were bankrupt and there was no money to pay them.
  • Doctors took payment "in kind" because there was little money. Patients were not turned away because they couldn't pay.
  • The utter desolation. Land stripped of every green shoot, every living creature except insects. And the farmers.
  • The financial crises that occurred during the thirties have many resemblances to those occurring today.  Then and now, families suffered because of the irresponsible and often dishonest actions of bankers.  Then and now, foreclosures and destruction of personal assets wiped out families. 
This book is not only interesting as history, but interesting as an object lesson on how we could (and did) have a national government that actively helped citizens in a time of domestic crisis.

One of the many projects completed at the time was the 1936 documentary, The Plow That Broke the Plains.  This documentary is in the national archives and is freely available.  It's only 25 minutes long.  The filming was done during dusters and melodramatically portrays the death of the High Plains at the hands of the sod busters; and the suffering thereafter.  The mustachioed farmer portrayed in this film is Bam White, whose story is told by Egan in his book.

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