Children of the Dust Bowl

December 20th, 2012

In the December issue of Humanities Magazine, James Williford reviews the new Ken Burns film, The Dust Bowl, which tells the story of the series of dust storms that hit the American prairie lands in the 1930s and the people the storms affected. In the late nineteen-teens, farmers moved to the plains area, digging up the grass, churning the soil, and planting wheat. But when a decade-long drought hit in 1931, farmers lost their crops, and the soil, dry and loose, was stirred up and became massive dust storms that, as Williford recounts, “suffocated cattle and sickened children. […] Bereft of its grasses, the land was wrecked, not only unfarmable, but brutally inhospitable, with dirt drifts that could whip up and kill you.”

What makes the film so memorable, though, are the interviews that Burns conducts with the children of the Dust Bowl, who are now themselves aging grandparents and great-grandparents. It is the stories they tell that give viewers a specific face and a specific narrative to identify with, allowing them to grasp, through the particulars, the larger picture. It is, in other words, another example of why we take stories so seriously.

Williford writes:

For all the archive-culling and careful scholarship that makes it so quintessentially Burnsian, Dust Bowl is also, at its core and at its most compelling, a subtly different sort of animal from those that came before it. The hallmarks of Burns’s style don’t form the base of the film so much as its buttresses—the necessary but unmistakably peripheral materials that give shape and place to the raw stories of its real stars: a few men and women who, more than seventy years ago, as boys and girls, witnessed firsthand the worst manmade ecological disaster in American history. Tapping their childhood memories, Burns’s vision of the Dirty Thirties departs ever so slightly from the sense of staid authority that his viewers have come to expect and takes on something of the haunting quality of a remembered nightmare: visceral but vague, fragmented, and, at times, almost unreal.

It is a wholly appropriate approach to the terrors of the Dust Bowl. Consider: What do three hundred fifty million tons of airborne dirt, blown up on sixty-mile-an-hour winds and crackling with electricity, look like? How does it feel to watch that cloud roll in? To be caught up in its abrasive, blinding rage? Measurements and meteorological data, film and still photographs, even eyewitness reports can only suggest so much—and Burns, deft storyteller that he is, knows it. He knows that, of the resources available to him, it’s the child’s-eye view, a naive and poignant focus on the so-called small picture, the apparently miscellaneous detail that all but magically gives expression to whatever is unfathomable beyond it. When, in the film, Robert “Boots” McCoy recalls the first big dust storm to rip through the Plains, it isn’t his description of the black blizzard itself that hits home (“it was just like midnight in the middle of the day,” he says, “just like midnight with no stars”), but the vignette with which he wraps up the experience of having a mountain-range worth of earth envelop everything around him: “Mother would pray about it, you know.  And us kids”—he means him and his elder sister—“were little. And we stayed pretty close to Ma, I can guarantee you.” No fact or artifact could make the storm any more visible, any more real, for the viewer than the act of sympathetic imagination that it takes to conjure an image of this mustachioed, older gentleman as a kid, huddled against his praying mom as the dark dirt blasted their home. It is an image that sticks. And it sticks because it makes the mass of the storm intimately intelligible.

Again and again, the survivors interviewed in Dust Bowl remind us that they witnessed the hard times on the Plains as children, knowing nothing but “a brown world,” as one puts it, and trying, as best they could, to make sense of the overwhelming hardship, grief, and courage that surrounded them. Adult anxieties linger at the edges of their memories—failed crops, repossessions, the possibility of starvation, the shame of relief, the escape of suicide—but those weren’t the kinds of troubles that, back then, they were prepared to fully process. What they remember are evocative slivers of that reality. They remember when dad killed the family’s calf (the children, their father knew, needed its mother’s milk just to stay alive), and the tough chore of trampling thistles (the only food left to feed the cattle), and the sight of a red morning sun, which, father said, augured a “bad day” (i.e., dust-storm weather). That their versions of events are from childhood memories takes nothing from their historic value. It is only a different history, metonymic and, set within the context that Burns and his scholars provide, all the more powerful for it.

Read Williford’s review, “Children of the Dust,” at Humanities Magazine, and head over to PBS to watch The Dust Bowl. Also at PBS, check out the “Share Your Story” feature, where viewers have added their own stories of their experiences in the Dust Bowl. 

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