The Dust Bowl, the Depression, and the Migrant Laborers, Oh My!
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Wow and OMG! I loved this book! It is a beautiful mother/daughter love story disguised as historical fiction about the Dust Bowl in the Great Plains and about migrant workers – Oakies – in California in the years of the depression. I listened to the audio version of the book, read by Julia Whelan. At the end of the book there is an interview with Kristin Hannah. In it, the author tells us she likes to put her characters in the darkest periods of their life. Once there, she asks them not only to survive, but to thrive in some way. Within the reality of the book’s historical reference points, the author has many ways to test her characters, especially, Elsa Wolcott Martinelli, the book’s leading lady.
Elsa was born in 1896. When the book opens, it is 1921 and she is twenty-five and deemed too old to marry. As the book jacket tells us, all of that changes when she meets Rafe Martinelli and loses her reputation to him. Pregnant – and thrown out of her family home – she goes to live with him and his parents, Tony and Rose, on their farm in the Texas Panhandle. Ultimately, Elsa and Rafe have two children, Loreda and Ant (short for Anthony).
Clearly, the marriage did not start out in the best of ways. It is then tested when the Dust Bowl occurs. I really did not know much about the Dust Bowl before this book. If you are like me in this regard, here are the basic facts: The Dust Bowl means two things. It is the name of the drought period in the Great Plains that lasted for a decade starting in 1931. It is also the name given to the section of the United States affected by the drought. This includes parts of Colorado, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico.
Beyond drought, the region also suffered from rising winds, and oddly, from faulty farming practices. Farmers had pulled out all the natural grasses in order to plant wheat. When drought hit – and horrific winds followed – the land and crops literally blew away.
I don’t want to give anything away, but something happens with Rafe, which leaves Elsa alone with her children and in-laws. Loreda blames her mother for what happened. This is a turning point for their relationship. The minor mother/daughter skirmishes they knew in the past blow up (like the winds!) into something of larger proportion.
Elsa has come to love Rose and Tony – and their farmland – and is determined to stay put to await better days. But then the author makes Elsa’s life even darker. Beyond larders becoming bare, and the farm’s livestock dying off, Ant comes down with dust pneumonia. In a very poignant scene, he urgently needs medical care! But the family truck has no gas and the horse that could have pulled a wagon has died! Wait till you see how Elsa gets Ant to town.
The situation with Ant convinces Elsa to pack up and go to California. Just as you think things could not possibly get worse, they start their westward migration. The most shocking thing about this part of the novel is how horrible things are for them in California. They are not treated as fellow Americans, but instead as unwelcome strangers. From whatever part of the Great Plains migrants actually hale, they are called Oakies. And since California has an oversupply of such workers, wages are low, and workers are exploited to the point of starvation. Even if they had money, no one would rent to “their kind,” so they were forced to live in a “ditch camp.” Through it all, Loreda fights with her mother and blames her for everything including her “choice” of living accommodations.
In the aforementioned interview with Kristin Hannah, she tells us that for a novel to be compelling, it needs to have and resolve some sort of interpersonal conflict. She knew she wanted this book to have two female characters. At first, she had Loreda and Elsa as sisters-in-law, but couldn’t quite figure out what they would quarrel about. After all, the dust was already killing them; they needed to pull together! But in this manner, the idea of a teenage daughter entered the author’s mind. If the teenage years bring instant conflict in the best of times, what will it do in the worst?
Trust me, the reader will find out. And trust me, all that strife makes the ultimate resolution of conflict that much sweeter.
As I said, it’s a very beautiful mother/daughter love story disguised as historical fiction about the Dust Bowl. I recommend it.
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