Review Of The Book Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains In The 1930s

Donald Worster’s impeccable work, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, provides a detailed analysis of the American peoples’ attitude towards the environmental catastrophe during the thirties. The Dust Bowl is a well-researched disastrous combination of man and environmental dealings. “Black blizzards” of the 1930’s became the new norm of the southern plains as the topsoil was stripped away destroying houses, farms and some small communities. The Midwest suffered major consequences for ignoring the ecological warning signs. Worster claims the Dust Bowl is a result of an integral struggle concerning environmental sensitivity and capitalistic growth. He portrays the farmers of the plains as a hopeful risk-taker who works to increase their revenues by focusing on one cash crop, cultivating the marginal fields, and over extending investments in pricey farm equipment. This becomes the central argument for his book, the fact that farm land was used to its maximum capacity to fulfill the needs of the American consumerist culture. Donald Worster proposes that the origins of the Dust Bowl, similar to those of the Great Depression, reside in economic organizations and culture in America. Furthermore, he suggests that the study of the ecological catastrophe has significant consequences for modern America.

Dust Bowl, a historiographical narrative, claims that capitalism is the origin of the environmental extermination that cleared the plains of the South. Worster distinguishes this in his introduction as he explains how significant America’s use of the land and the ignorance of ecological barriers the land has. One example he lays out in his book is the once grasslands of the Southern Plains. Places like Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas were transformed into crop fields that would become planted and plowed resulting in large factory farms and over the course of fifty years would become overharvested leading the erosion of the topsoil. Consequently, man would learn the hard way that there was environmental restrictions to what the land was truly capable of which would hamper the economic demand of the land for capitalistic gains.

Dust Bowl is based on extensive research that is divided into five main sections composed of fourteen chapters in all which are composed of multiple types of sources.. Each of the five segments cover diverse aspects of the decade of the thirties. The book begins with discussing the displacement of people from the drought and the years of farming abuse the region faced that Worster outlines in the first two parts: “A Darkling Plain” and the “Prelude to Dust.” He follows this with two specific regions that were inevitably effected by the Dust Bowl, “Cimarron County, Oklahoma” and “Haskell County, Kansas,” which allows the reader is able to visualize communities that were directly affected by the dust storms through survivors’ tales. The last part of Worster’s book, “A New Deal for the Land,” elaborates on how the government assistance programs worked to alleviate the suffering as well as provide help to those people who felt the blow of drought and the Great Depression. Worster also uses this section to account for the federal government’s efforts to improve farming practices to prevent this from happening in the future.

The sources Worster incorporates helps to paint a vivid picture of what life was like on the Southern Plains in the 1930s. These sources include scientific studies, federal reports, and verbal accounts. He uses dialogues from store managers, farmers, and government leaders that reminisced on the dust storms that would be impossible to forget. Throughout the entire book he inserts captivating images that directly correlate to the Dust Bowl. He strategically places narratives and pictures to allow the reader to understand the day to day lives for average individuals that suffered from the devastating storms.

One distinct flaw with the Dust Bowl is that Worster fails to provide a detailed analysis from the perspective of an African American. He faintly introduces them towards the end of the book as he elaborates on the fact that not many blacks lived in this region. He explains where the term “exodusters” came from, the Southern slaves leaving to find new homes on the prairie but he does not mention any dialogues from these individuals leaving their former lives behind. He does a fantastic job using narratives in the appropriate places but what he doesn’t do is include narratives for the black prairie homesteaders. If he would have been able to capture the struggles of multiracial groups he would have been able to reach a larger audience in a much deeper depth as race is a vital aspect of American culture. 

Despite this minor flaw, overall Worster’s Dust Bowl is an epic tale of one of America’s darkest moments in history that is a lesson that all Americans can learn from. Worster claims the lesson to be learned it that there most certainly has to be a constant and continuous analysis of agricultural, governmental, and industrial rules and procedures to maintain accountability to avoid another Dust Bowl in the future. 

16 December 2021
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