Several years ago, I read Timothy Egan‘s The Worst Hard Time, a National Book Award winner about the dust storms and drought that struck the High Plains in the 1930s during the Great Depression. The book is a fascinating immersion into another time describing the causes, government responses, and the people in an otherworldly land. So I was excited to see that filmmaker Ken Burns created a new two-part documentary about The Dust Bowl for PBS, and that Egan appears several times throughout the film.
The Dust Bowl is unable to go into the depths that Egan’s book did about the causes and the responses to the environmental disaster, but the documentary narrated by Peter Coyote gives viewers a decent understanding of a somewhat forgotten period of American history that is still relevant today. As today’s politicians debate the effects that human beings have on our environment (even if scientists agree), The Dust Bowl provides a clear example of how human activity destroyed an environment. The film explores how the farming practices ruined the landscape, how the government was eventually able to effectively respond, and how humans often fail to learn from experience.
What The Dust Bowl does best, however, is tell the personal stories of the people who lived on the High Plains during the 1930s. Through interviews with twenty-six survivors who were there, along with outstanding photos and video footage of the land and the dust storms, one gets a good sense of what it was like to live on the land at the time, as well as understanding why some stayed and why some left.
More precisely, The Dust Bowl captures what it was like to be a child growing up there at the time, as the most fascinating interviews in the film are of people who experienced the drought and dust storms. And, of course, those people still alive now were children during the Dust Bowl era. So, the most moving tales come from the eyes of children remembering details like the dust on the dishes and the joy of being reunited with a parent. Also, because they were children, we see that some of the stories that most affected the speakers were not about falling wheat prices or how the dirt affected the local economy but about seeing how the drought affected animals. So just as animals often play a large role in our memories of childhood, one person vividly remembers the death of a calf, another remembers the community’s brutal response to an influx of jackrabbits, and others are haunted by other similar childhood experiences.
Others who are no longer alive give us additional perspectives on the times, including footage of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Another famous voice we get to hear is that of Woody Guthrie, both talking and singing about “the dusty old dust.”
The story moves along briskly and is engaging throughout. The episodes were written by Dayton Duncan, who has worked with director Ken Burns on other series like The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, The Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz. I have been a fan of Duncan’s since the late 1980’s when I discovered his book Out West: American Journey Along the Lewis and Clark Trail (1988), where Duncan recounted his own modern road trip tracing Lewis and Clark’s famous travels. When I saw that he was working with Director Ken Burns years ago, I was glad that Burns found such a good writer.
If you enjoy Ken Burns’s other work, such as The Civil War, you probably already know whether you want to see The Dust Bowl or have already seen it. I am a fan of all of his work. But even if you have not seen his other work, you might find The Dust Bowl engaging because its first-person accounts provide an entertaining living history and a living warning about our times. Check your local PBS stations for reruns of The Dust Bowl, which is also available on DVD and Blu-ray. In the video below, Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan discuss the series.
Another Review Because Why Should You Trust Me?: For a different view on The Dust Bowl, check out “Burns’ ‘Dust Bowl’ speaks to our times, but it’s dry” from David Wiegand.
What did you think of The Dust Bowl? Leave your two cents in the comments.