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Sweet Monkey Pie… it's a book review!

I’ve always read historical books. Guess it makes me a dull guy, but I’m always intrigued to find out how we, the human race, got from point A to point B. To me, there’s a lot of truth in the saying “Those that ignore history are doomed to repeat it” (coined by writer George Santayana, who, oddly enough, I know nothing about). I’ve always used historical works to frame current events – makes reality a bit more palatable.

For example, during the Abu Ghraib fiasco, I re-read All the President’s Men by Woodward and Bernstein. Of course, the ultimate outcome of W.’s scandal was not as eventful as Nixon’s constitutional comeuppance, but it was interesting to take a look at an insular White House in action when things go wrong. I also remember seeing a documentary about Robert McNamara – Kennedy and Johnson’s secretary of defense – where he said that if we had known more about Vietnam’s culture and history, we may have made drastically different approaches to that war.

(I also finally read Primary Colors during the Lewinsky scandal, but that was just a sadistic pleasure. Trust me, I knew what I was getting into, but, like watching Pink Floyd’s The Wall or SpongeBob SquarePants while baked, it only made a good time that much better.)

Anyway, I just finished reading The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. Somehow, this book had just slipped past me for a few years, primarily because I always end up reading about other eras. My dad – a history teacher, so you’ll know where I get this trait – recommended it. This is the story of the people who stayed in the midwest during the Dust Bowl era of the mid-30s (as opposed to the “Okies” that set out for California, famously chronicled in The Grapes of Wrath).

What struck me about this book is that it’s non-fiction that chronicles a time that was so without precedence that it read like fiction (a man-made natural disaster that on several occasions deposited thousands of tons of dust on New York and Washington – think about it!). In a blog, I can’t do the book any justice – this review from the New York Times is a good synopsis – but here are a few of the things from this book that just lingered with me.

  • This was a man-made disaster. We did this, and Mother Nature just took us behind the dust-covered woodshed for the better part of a decade. Essentially, humans thought we could turn the grasslands of the Midwest into a vast farmland for grain. Acres and acres of soil was turned up, robbing the land of the grass. When a drought hit, and the winds came, we got dust storms, “black blizzards” and a general ecological fustercluck of biblical proportions. That’s not hyperbole. Biblical proportions. They got locusts at one point, for Chrissakes (because the locust’s primary predator got wiped out in the drought). I always knew the Dust Bowl was bad, but didn’t know it was this bad.
  • A follow-up … we arrogant humans actually believed that this farming would have a positive effect on the ecosystem – “rain will follow the plow,” they said. There were a lot of warning signs here, but we chose to ignore them for purely economic reasons. Somehow, that comes to mind whenever one of my Rush Limbaugh-loving friends starts spouting some half-truths about the scientific “confusion” about global warming. Their “confusion” is only a thinly-veiled attempt to retrofit facts to their beliefs. I worry that a hard rain’s a-coming. Or not coming. Whatever. Bad things, man.
  • The effect of this event on the people of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, Kansas, and other areas was just incredible. Kids died – by the thousands – of “dust pneumonia.” Parents tried to keep the ever-present dust out of their dugouts or homes by spreading wet sheets over windows, but it just permeated everything. It filled the lungs of the young and old, and they died in droves. The stories of death and destruction of everything – including the most innocent victims – was just stunning.
  • How this event tied in with the Depression was also a compelling subplot. I thought about this a lot this week as the 24-hour news channels were hyperventilating with talk of a coming recession. We’ve all have some impressions of the Depression – 25 percent unemployment, widespread displacement, the guys in suits selling apples on street corners. But, The Worst Hard Time, talks about its impact on the poorest of the poor in the Midwest. People were rioting because their kids were starving. Again, that puts things into context.  Americans only 70 years ago… rioting because of widespread starvation. Somehow, the next time Maria Bartiromo begins to look a little panicked because GM’s stock is off a couple of points, I’ll have a little more perspective.

And, for a look at history within the context of another piece of history, I got the From the Earth the Moon TV miniseries for Christmas (a look at the US moon landings of the 1960s). I would sometimes watch these episodes before or after knocking down a chapter about the Dust bowl. That always made me feel a little better.

Why? In the 1930s, the US was reeling from a Depression and an ecological disaster. People still farmed with horses or mules. Indoor plumbing was still not a de facto standard. Three decades later, one of us is standing on the moon. The course of human progress can be breathtaking. That’s why I read these things. To compare one era to another (or to the present). Every so often you hit a comparison that just turns readjusts your view of reality. That’s something that fiction – even the best fiction – rarely does.

Happy reading folks. I’ll be back writing about my hatred of Duke or other inane stuff at some point.

Categories: Books
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