I recently finished listening to the audio version of Kristin Hannah’s latest novel, published in February 2021, The Four Winds. Sometimes writers can take actual historic events and place a character neatly in the center of them allowing the reader a first hand sense of the times. Hannah does this with this long novel set in the Dust Bowl years of the state of Texas in the early 1930’s. While I was aware in a general way of the devastating climate catastrophe of those years, I had only a cursory sense of what it would have been like to live then.
So taken was I by the novel that after I finished it I found and watched a four hour documentary by Ken Burns on the Dust Bowl. Here numerous images filled out the ones in my imagination created by my reading. The drought and blowing away of nearly 75% of the topsoil during the 1930’s covered 100,000,000 acres of the central United States. While the drought was a significant factor, the farming technique of deeply plowing the grasslands destroyed centuries of drought tolerant grass which had held the soil in place.
But of course we know so much more today! While we can comfort ourselves by knowing more about farming land not designed to grow certain crops, we are just as headstrong in this country about where we choose to live. Ignoring the reason people never lived in the desert, huge population growth has taken place in the southwest US draining the Colorado River, using up the aquifer and relying on electricity to cool homes where the summer heat is now hitting 120 degrees F.
Perhaps some fiction writer in the future will chronicle a single mother in Arizona trying to provide for her family in intolerable desert conditions. She can look back to Hannah’s account of a woman trying to do just that in Texas as the soil blew away.