(from Smithsonian Magazine)
For as long as I can remember, I've had a weird interest in weather, storms, and natural disasters. There's no doubt that reading Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl kicked my curiosity about that particular event up a notch. (My thoughts about the book are here.)
I'd been planning to read more about the Dust Bowl ever since and, as it turned out, The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah became the next step. It was the July selection of the Wednesday morning library book group but, unfortunately, I missed the discussion. (At least the carpet installers showed up as promised!)
The Four Winds is a widely popular novel and Kristin Hannah sure knows how to keep her readers turning the pages. Despite the relentless hardship and misery, I could not put the book down. [My thoughts are posted here.] As I read, Hannah's story began to remind me of John Steinbeck's classic novel The Grapes of Wrath, a book I loved back in high school and have been wanting to reread for years. The time was right...
I decided on a read/listen combination of The Grapes of Wrath and selected the audio edition narrated by Dylan Baker. I was surprised not only by how much I remembered from my teens, but also by the considerable historical overlap and multiple plot similarities. The contrast between writing styles, however, was striking.
Steinbeck's novel is so well-written, though it's slower reading than The Four Winds. His detailed descriptions add a pronounced visual element to this work and his characters are so genuine, they're almost real. I especially loved how Steinbeck interspersed short chapters, which provided a glimpse of the bigger picture, with longer chapters specifically about the Joad's experience. What a master! The Grapes of Wrath won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and the National Book Award in 1939.
There is no doubt Hannah's novel is more accessible to the modern reader. It seemed The Four Winds focused on the difficulties of the time, while Steinbeck, additionally, seemed interested in taking a broad look at the overall hardship and what lead to it. Both novels emphasized humanity within the misery and I was impressed by the strength shown by women in both stories. Ma Joad and Elsa Martinelli were truly the glue, the strength, that held their families together.
The following week, I spent four hours watching a Ken Burns documentary, The Dust Bowl. It provided the historical perspective I needed to better understand its place among other events in early 20th century history.
The documentary was released in 2012, a time when many children of the Dust Bowl were still around to be interviewed. Seeing them as senior citizens and listening to their memories and stories of those difficult years brought tears to my eyes more than once. This documentary was an ideal follow-up to The Four Winds and The Grapes of Wrath... I highly recommend it.
The DVD was available at the library, but we do not have a DVD player here. I was happy to find it also available for download via hoopla. It counted as two "borrows" toward my monthly allowance.
I've moved on from the Dust Bowl for now, but have a couple more novels left on my list. When the mood strikes again, I'd like to read:
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse (Newberry Medal 1998)
I Will Send Rain by Rae Meadows
Are there other titles I should add to my list?