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On the trip from Knoxville to Florida I read this – a history of the Dust Bowl.

It’s very good – for those already familiar with the period, there’s probably not much that’s new – but for the rest of us, it’s a good popular introduction to the background of the disaster, with lots and lots of personal stories gleaned from published and unpublished memoirs and histories.

The Dust Bowl is the Mother of All Cautionary Tales, of course – settlers drawn out to unfarmable land by various speculators, government plans and charlatans. Settlers who then coaxed a miracle out of this land, bringing amazing harvests in a period of skyrocketing wheat prices, which only encouraged more to tear up more of the land, held together for centuries by the grasses that fed the buffalo. And then prices dropped, so in a panic of trying to cover costs and maintain income, even more land was torn up, until the droughts started and the land just started to blow away.

Black Sunday, April 14, 1935. More photos here.

Horrors ensue, of enormous storms of dirt and dust that continued for years – burying homes and infecting countless with ‘dust pneumonia’ and other ailments, killing the very young and the very old. Many left, some stayed.

The reason I read this book is because it was sitting on the coffee table at my Dad’s house. My dad asked me if I’d heard of it, I said, no, and I asked him if he’d read it. No, he said, he hadn’t been able to confront it yet (not his exact words, but something like it). Why? Because there’s a personal connection here.

One of the primary sources for Egan was the memoirs of Hazel Lucas Shaw, who left the area before the dust storms began, only to move back as a young bride, to experience the full horror – Black Sunday, pictured above, hit the day she was to bury her infant daughter and her grandmother, both killed by the dust. Hazel Lucas Shaw is a relation of sorts – she is the sister of my grandmother’s sister’s husband, but the truth goes deeper, for all of them were up there at the time – my dad’s grandmother, his aunt, and her future husband, Hazel Lucas’s brother. They were all living through the dust, suffering the poverty and the temptation to despair in the face of dust and more dust, with no end in sight.

Difficult reading, in any case, but the closer you are, the more painful the read, indeed.

And it certainly puts a life of relative ease – dare we even say luxury – in stark perspective, pushes meaningless complaints out of mind, and inspires some girding of loins: No excuses. Here’s my life…what good shall I do with the gift today?

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