The Journal of C.J. Jackson Discussion Guide
- Grades: 6–8
About this book
To the Discussion Leader
Life in Cimarron County, Oklahoma is pretty bleak in April, 1935. C.J. Jackson and his family are struggling through the Great Depression, drought, and dust storms so thick that on Black Sunday, "cyclonic winds traveling at speeds up to 100 miles per hour rolled out of the Dakotas and traveled quickly across Nebraska, Kansas, eastern Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. Dirt clouds churned 20,000 feet into the air and created a thousand-mile-wide duster."
Author William Durbin places young readers in the old car piled with the Jackson's possessions and takes them along Route 66 to what the family hopes will be a prosperous new life in beautiful California. Disease-infested "Hoovervilles," back-breaking work picking crops for little money, menacing harassment from police, and the persistent meanness of local residents quickly replace the family's hope for a better life.
Through the journal entries of teenager C.J. Jackson, readers pick the ever-present dirt from their teeth and head West leaving behind "...one of the greatest ecological disasters in the history of our planet." In California they learn the dual nature of human beings and our capacity to do both good and evil.
"The minute I raised my eyes and saw the duster, I knew we were in trouble. I'd seen dozens of dust storms, but I'd never seen one that big and black. Everybody was running for their wagons and cars. By the time we got to our own truck, the wind had already hit. Dust was flying everywhere," writes thirteen-year-old C. J. Jackson in his journal. It is 1935 in Oklahoma, and such storms are almost a daily occurrence. The endless drought and crop failures have caused most of their neighbors to pack up and move away, abandoning their farms. The Jacksons are determined to stay even though the pasture is dead and they can't afford to feed their cattle. But when Grandpa dies, and the windmill that pumps their water breaks down, they have to leave.
Having heard "there are thousands of jobs out there," in California, the Jacksons pack up their belongings and head for the San Joaquin Valley. The trip out West is long; the truck breaks down many times; and they're forced to abandon the trailer along with many of their household goods. As the family members near their destination, they discover very few jobs in California, and quickly realize migrants are not welcome. The Jacksons encounter discrimination: people call them trash and "Okies." After one embarrassing encounter, C.J. writes, "There was that Okie word again. The way this man said it hurt more than that puff-chested inspector back on the Arizona border. This fellow made me feel like Okie meant dirt or something even worse."
In the San Joaquin Valley the family hopes to find jobs picking fruit and vegetables, but only sees signs that read, "No Jobs Here." They are forced to stay in a filthy squatter's camp of makeshift shacks with no sanitation. C.J. and his father find temporary work, but it's barely enough to buy food for the family.
Despite constant discrimination and name-calling, Daddy has remained calm, ignoring the insults. But when a shopkeeper calls his daughters "no good Okie trash," Daddy punches the man, and ends up in jail for thirty days. Fortunately, the rest of the family is able to move to the Arvin Federal Camp, which is clean, well organized, and safe. C.J. writes to the folks back home, "Now we have a permanent address."
Although life is better now, the Jacksons still have no money, and worry how they'll ever be able to pay the taxes on the farm back home. All that changes when Daddy repairs a wealthy man's Cadillac, and the grateful owner offers him a job as a mechanic in Los Angeles. Realizing it's their only way to earn enough to go back to Oklahoma, the family accepts his offer. In Los Angeles, they move into an apartment, the children begin school, and they all begin to plan their return home. C. J. writes, "Grandpa once told me that a farmer needs two things: patience and knowledge of the land. If I am patient, I know I'll see the prairie again."
Thinking About the Book
- Ask the individual members of your discussion group to come up with what each believes are the two major reasons for the terrible dust storms in Oklahoma. Share the answers with the group. What reasons were mentioned most often?
- As you recall the Jackson's long trip along Route 66, what incident do you remember most clearly? Why?
- Why were the Dust Bowl Migrants treated so poorly when they arrived in California?
- What event causes C.J.'s father to be jailed?
- Identify the following:
- On February 10th, Lester and Olive come home from school complaining about their day. Mother tells them to stop their complaining and remember the old saying: "Smile and the world smiles with you. Cry and you cry alone." Explain this saying.
- Near the end of the book, C.J. decides not to spend his gold coin but to place it right back where he found it in Oklahoma. Why?
- If you could ask William Durbin, the author of C.J.'s journal, one question about this book, what would that question be?
- Read the Newbery Medal-winning book Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, set in Oklahoma in 1934. How is C.J.'s story like Billie Jo's? How is it different? Make a Venn diagram comparing and contrasting the two characters and their stories.
- Throughout his journal, C.J. writes about the price of things and the wages a migrant worker could earn for a grueling day's work. Use this worksheet to help you compare prices and wages in the Dust Bowl period with prices and wages today. Work in groups and share your findings with other discussion group members.
- The Jackson family treats injuries and illnesses with home remedies. Recall how C.J.'s father treats his son's snakebite wound. Look up first aid for snakebite and explain how that would be treated today. When C.J.'s brother Dalton has a bad chest cold, what cure does his mother mix up? (p. 112) How does that compare with how we treat a cold today?
- On the road to California, C.J. and his family enjoy reading Burma Shave signs. Browse this collection of Burma Shave slogans . Which one of the rhymes do you like best? Pick a modern day product and write a four-line verse that could be used on a succession of signs advertising it.
- Will Rogers is mentioned frequently in C.J.'s journal. Read some of his well-known sayings on the official Will Rogers website . Pick one and share what you think it means.
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.