Dear America: Survival in the Storm Booktalk
When dust is everywhere and rain refuses to fall, will the Edwards family stay on their farm no matter what, or will they decide to start over somewhere else?
Grace and her family live on a small farm just outside Dalhart, in the Texas panhandle. The dust and the wind control their lives in every way. Grace hates the endless cleaning and dishwashing. No matter how many times a day they sweep out the dust, the next day there’s more of it to get rid of. Dishes have to be washed after meals, but then they have to be rinsed again before the next meal to make sure they’re clean. When she and her mother make bread, they knead it inside a dresser drawer to keep most of the dust out of the dough. It’s impossible to keep it all out, and they’ve gotten used to gritty bread and sandy cornbread. Water has to be strained over and over before it’s clear enough to drink, and tastes more like dust than water. There have been too many poor harvests, and neither Grace nor her bratty little sister Ruth have had a new dress in two years.
When the huge duststorms blow through, everyone rushes to get the animals into the barn, cover up the tractor and the car, and cover the windows with damp cloths and sheets to keep as much of the dust as possible outside, and go down into the cellar so they can breathe easier, hoping they won’t find too much damage when they come back up. They have to sleep with damp washcloths over their faces to keep from choking to death on the dust that comes in through every crack and crevice. And people aren’t the only ones affected by the drought and the dust. There are so few twigs and grass, that when crows build a nest in the Edwards’ windmill, they have to make it out of bits of baling wire, barbed wire, and twigs from tumbleweeds! Lots of farmers give up and move to California, where there are supposed to be lots of jobs, no drought and no dust.
All that changes on April 13th. Grace walks over to Helen’s house, worried because she’s seemed so unhappy lately, only to find the house empty, and the whole family packed into their car, ready to head for California. The girls have only minutes to say goodbye, and suddenly Grace’s best friend whom she’s known for almost her whole life, is gone. And while she is still reeling from that shock, Grace and Ruth are nearly killed the next day, on Black Sunday, when the worst duster ever sweeps across the panhandle. It had been a beautiful day, clear and still, and Grace had reveled in the clean air and stillness. But after supper, a long line of black clouds filled the northern horizon, moving south at frightening speed. Ruth went out to get the dish towels off the clothesline, and when she didn’t come back in, Grace went to find her. Ruth was chasing a dish towel and before either of them realized it, they were far from the house, and the black boiling clouds were getting closer and closer, filling the sky and turning day to darkest night. Clouds of birds shrieked overhead, trying to outrun the storm, and Grace suddenly knew that she and her sister would never make it back home before they were caught up in the storm.
Just then, Grace saw Helen’s abandoned house, and they ran to it, slamming the door behind them. It was completely empty, nothing they could hide in or under to protect themselves from the storm. The two girls huddled in a corner, the towel Ruth had been chasing over their faces, listening to the wind howl and the house rattle and shake, praying for survival. When the storm was over, the search party found them covered in inches of thick heavy black dust. They had breathed so much of it into their lungs that they coughed up lumps of dirt, their chests hurting from coughing and trying to get air into their dust-coated lungs.
This booktalk was written by librarian and booktalking expert Joni R. Bodart.