William Durbin: In addition to the toughness of the people who migrated from the Dust Bowl states, the thing that most surprised me was the intensity of the dust storms. I was amazed to discover that during the worst storms the dust clouds blew all the way from Oklahoma to the Atlantic Ocean.
RFA & EST: Route 66 figures prominently in the Jackson family's journey to California, and there is a wonderful fold-out map of the route at the back of your book. Have you traveled on part of this old highway? If so, what are your impressions of it?
WD: The few sections of the original highway that I have seen are places frozen in time. The family owned diners and motels remind me of what America looked like before the interstates and the ugliness of the malls and chain restaurants made everything look the same.
RFA & EST: Other than C.J., who is your favorite character in the book? Why?
WD: I like Grandpa, because he represents the hardy spirit of the early settlers who moved to the plains. I also respect Mother's quiet dignity.
RFA & EST: C.J. and his family are able to return to their farm in Oklahoma. How prevalent was this among the dust bowl immigrants to California? Did many go back home, or did they stay and settle in the West?
WD: Though many people wanted to return home, only a small percentage were successful in reclaiming their farms, or in other cases, buying new land and starting over. Most of the migrants stayed on the west coast because the demand for employment increased rapidly at the beginning of World War II.
RFA & EST: You have mentioned how much you enjoy writing historical fiction. Some writers say they write historical fiction just so they have a reason to do the research and immerse themselves in a previous era. Do you, too, feel that way?
WD: I enjoy the gradual process of discovery that research entails. Though I may have to read through hundreds of pages of original source material before I find a detail which is compelling enough to include in my books, the search is always worthwhile. But publication is also exciting because it offers a validation of all the hard work.
RFA & EST: You have taught every grade from fourth grade to college. What lessons from teaching have helped you in your writing for young readers?
WD: I hope that working with young people has given me a clear sense of my audience. No matter how historically accurate and well written a book is, students won't want to read it unless it has excitement, adventure, and strong characters.
RFA & EST: In the acknowledgements you mention the Dust Bowl Gazette created by Pat Ramsey and her eighth grade class in Boise City. Tell us a little about this project.
WD: For the last few years Ms. Ramsey has asked her classes to interview residents of Cimarron County who have memories of the Dust Bowl. The students publish articles based on their interviews in an annual newspaper that they call the Dust Bowl Gazette. The stories recorded by Ms. Ramsey's class and those collected by Norma Young, the former editor of the Boise City News, were most helpful.
RFA & EST: In all three of your My Name is America books there is the theme of prejudice against the main character's people--the Irish in Sean Sullivan, the Finns in Otto Peltonen, and the Okies in C. J. Jackson. What would you like your readers to gain from knowing about this?
WD: I don't consciously seek to teach lessons about prejudice, but I do my best to depict the reality of the time. Americans have had an unfortunate history of being intolerant of people from other cultures.
RFA & EST: The Historical Note in C.J.'s journal ends with this sentence: "Without careful stewardship of the land, Black Sunday could one day return." As you look at our world today, have we learned those lessons of stewardship?
WD: Yes and no. We have learned much about improved agricultural practices, but we don't consistently apply our knowledge. In the wake of the Dust Bowl, family farmers made many positive modifications to their farming methods. However, many of our modern farms have been consolidated into large-scale corporate operations that too often focus on quarterly profits rather than considering the long term health of our rural ecosystems. In addition to being prepared for future droughts, we need to be careful about excessive irrigation; indiscriminate fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide use; and the broad propagation of genetically modified crops without sufficient research.
Interview conducted 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.