dust storms

Stillwater, Minnesota High School Junior English Students Want To Know

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It couldn’t have been a better time and place. It was an exceptionally balmy April 11, 2014, and I was the guest in Stillwater High School teacher Peter Schield’s Junior English classes. Fresh spring air wafted gently though the open classroom windows, and much to their credit, the students conveyed very pleasant vibes as they entered the room, then later with their ‘thank you’ and/or pleasant nods as they exited the classroom. I so appreciated their polite withholding the desire to be sitting outside in the sunny breeze, or strolling in the park with a friend.

Taking a short rest on the edge of a table while answering students’ questions.

They had recently completed a unit of study on John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, which depicts a poor Oklahoma family who migrates to a far less pleasant time and place in California than the students could scarcely imagine; and I, their guest speaker, was there to tell them what it was like for those who didn’t leave the Oklahoma Dust Bowl——an experience unfortunately equally unpleasant. And I did share some of my experiences.

After my presentation, students asked some thought-provoking questions. Here are some of them: Did you have hope? What kind of food did you eat? Did a poisonous spider or insect ever bite you? It was very dry, so where did you get your water? Did you ever want to go ride the rails? What was your clothing like? Did you ever want to move to California? What did you do for fun? What was the saddest thing you experienced?

Walking the aisles to give students a close up view of my hometown location on an Oklahoma map, which I found on the internet. My hometown was within the area that the mapmaker had color highlighted as having suffered the worst dust storm damage during the 1930s.

There were more, but I think these “from their perspective” questions exemplify the range of thoughts these students had about my experiences. I hope you enjoyed this peek into the minds of this very nice group of teens, who made that day for me, one of the most beautiful days in the twilight years of my life.

THE DIRTY DAYS—What I’d Like Readers to Take Away from My Story

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I, like so many last week, watched the Ken Burns PBS special on the Dust Bowl.  Here is what I personally took away from the 4-hour documentary:  It was a powerful reminder of my difficult years growing up during that terrible time and place, which I document in my historical fiction novel.

And like Ken Burns’s deeply moving dust bowl documentary, my novel, The Dirty Days, isn’t JUST about the hardship; it’s also about perseverance, resilience, hope, support for the less fortunate, and respect for family–all interlaced within the context of a national tragedy. It’s the combination of these themes that provides the texture to the story of the heroic survival of the noble folks and their children who managed to live through the devastating 1930s.

Mother and Daddy’s wedding picture. All dressed up in better times (several years before we moved to Oklahoma, with hopes for a better future. Unfortunately, we headed instead into what became known as the Oklahoma Dust Bowl.).

Perseverance, combined with hope that things WOULD get better, was an overriding theme of the 1930s dust bowl. It motivated the farmers and their families and contributed to their survival of the poverty and ever-present dust storms. The characters in The Dirty Days (who are based on real people with real struggles) demonstrate perseverance in nearly everything they do and say and are what causes readers of my novel to comment, “It’s a gripping story. I couldn’t put it down.” And that is what I would like all of my readers to say.

In both Mr. Burns’s documentary and my story, there are clear examples of resilience, the ability to bounce back under even the most harsh of circumstances.  Resilience is ever-present in the stories about the dust bowl, as the men, women, and children humbled by the debilitating weather conditions and crippling poverty, focus their efforts on the belief that better times have to come–eventually.

Support for the less fortunate was touchingly portrayed in the documentary and is also found in my novel. My protagonist, Molly, and her parents are the recipients of such support, and they, too, perform noble acts of kindness for those even less fortunate than themselves. I think about the many times my mother served just a little bit of the food we had struggled to provide for ourselves to wandering tramps, who were mostly married men and fathers, as they made their way across the plains toward some place—any place—where they might find work.

Last, but certainly not least, respect for and strength of family was befittingly portrayed in the Ken Burns documentary and is repeatedly portrayed throughout my story. Such respect is seen right up to the surprising good deeds of Molly’s step-great-grandmother during the story’s fast-moving conclusion.

I hope readers of The Dirty Days will admire my protagonist, Molly, her parents, and their kind neighbors who showed so gallantly that you can accomplish or survive just about anything–if you dig deep, persevere, and don’t lose hope–even under the most challenging of times/circumstances.

Daddy years later, during hard times, collecting what few eggs he could find from the chicken coop.

I think readers will feel empathy for the characters in my book, just like I did for the folks whose experiences were so touchingly depicted in the Ken Burns documentary.  I hope so.  While the characters and events in my story are fictionalized, they all existed in real life–and their tragedies and triumphs really happened.  They, like me, were survivors, too, of that emotionally and physically demanding time and place.

Here’s what I’d love for readers of The Dirty Days to say after reading my story:  I feel as though I, too, was in the midst of surviving the 1930s Dust Bowl and Great Depression–experiencing “first-hand” what it was like to endure and overcome this terrible tragedy.

THE DIRTY DAYS—Relevance to the Present!

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Then! My little sister, Sue, and I on a visiting neighbor’s car the day after a dust storm.

The setting of my book, The Dirty Days, is the 1930s to early 1940s in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, and the story is brimming with episodes that present an opportunity for today’s readers to see its relevance to present-day circumstances.

Recent drought, dust storms and harder economic times across Texas and the mid-section of our country don’t yet compare completely to the historically devastating events of the 1930s. Yet it is almost uncanny how the recent climate issues in our country threaten to parallel those of that earlier time and place. For these reasons, much of the nation can relate to the events in my book.

A large percentage of the nation’s teens and adults have heard at least fragments of stories about the devastation in the 1930s Dust Bowl. Many of them are also aware of the impact of recent climate change in significant agricultural areas of our country. The media makes it easy for citizens young and old to know about this current weather issue, as well as our worrisome unemployment rate and our economy still struggling.

Now! The homestead in October of 2012–seventy-five years later! The house, barn, and chicken coop are all long gone. What’s left is the land—now green, not brown.

The majority of these individuals are concerned. They fear that our current economy might sink as badly as it did in the 1930s, and they want to know how bad it could truly get. Considering the possibility of a prolonged down turn in our economy, combined with weather conditions like Superstorm Sandy and/or other natural disasters, my book paints a vivid picture of what it could be like.

Also, because so many in our country are interested in history, I think readers are intrigued by real-life stories like mine that tell about everyday life during one of our nation’s outstanding historical periods, the 1930s prolonged drought, dust storms and poverty.

Baby Boomers–or Boomers as they are now called, are deeply interested in what life was like for their parents, who were dubbed the Greatest Generation in the late 1990s. And Boomers are especially interested in the lives of those who were survivors of the multiple-state Dust Bowl area—and/or the Great Depression. Even grandchildren of the Greatest Generation are eager to learn about what everyday life was like for their grandparents.

Then and Now! The abandoned house of a neighbor.

Both adults and teens nationwide can read my book and relate to the protagonist in my story. The setting and culture may be different than theirs, but they will identify with the young girl’s dreams, disappointments, fears and accomplishments as she grows to adulthood implementing the perseverance and determination she has learned from her life experiences.