Books narrate social misery in major crises in the history of the United States

Books narrate social misery in major crises in the history of the United States

Suddenly, day turned to night. Dust storms covered the sky. Not even the eyes could stay open with the mixture of wind and sand. Witnesses to what was one of the worst crises —social, economic and environmental— in the history of the United States called the event “midnight without stars”.

Daytime darkness was one of the many difficulties facing Americans in the so-called Dust Bowl region in the 1930s, which constituted an oval area formed mainly by parts of the states of Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.

Famine, drought, plagues, and land that became uncultivable directly and indirectly affected millions of Americans. All this in the midst of the Great Depression, an unprecedented recession caused by the crash of the New York Stock Exchange in 1929.

With houses invaded by sand in every crevice, lungs damaged by dust, without food and work, thousands of families migrated towards the west of the USA, seeking opportunities to work in fruit picking in California.

This historical context is the backdrop for two editorial releases in Brazil. The first is “Days of Sand”, by Aimée de Jongh (Nemo, 2022), a graphic novel that shows the effects of the Dust Bowl in a region of Oklahoma that became known as “No Man’s Land”. “).

In the comic, the protagonist is a photographer sent by the government to record the phenomenon. From the photographs that revealed the misery of its population, Franklin Roosevelt’s government established public policies to alleviate the crisis. The project to photograph the Dust Bowl really happened. “Dias de Areia” is a work of fiction with a historical character, that is, the characters are fictional and the context based on facts of the time.

The second is a classic of American literature that is being republished in the country with a graphic design that matches the magnitude of the work. This is John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” (Record, 2022).

In the novel, the Joad family is evicted from their now unproductive land and taken over by a bank. With no prospects and deceived by a pamphlet calling for farm workers, they leave Oklahoma for California to work on the crops.

Steinbeck narrates this saga with the skill that guaranteed him both the Pulitzer Prize, in 1940, and the Nobel, in 1960 —the work was originally published in 1939, ten years after the stock market crash and still in the wake of the effects of Dust Bowl.

It’s as if “Days of Sand” is a prequel to “Grapes of Wrath,” showing the devastation of the Dust Bowl plains through period photographs and beautifully drawn shots by Jongh, who traveled across Oklahoma in search of references.

In turn, “Grapes of Wrath” reports all the mishaps of the migration, made with pennies counted for gasoline and in precarious conditions of health in camps close to the road.

In “Days of Sand”, John Clark is a New York photojournalist who goes to Washington for a job interview. There, he is hired by the Farm Security Administration (FSA), a federal agency created in the 1930s by Franklin Roosevelt to combat rural poverty. With the crash of the New York Stock Exchange, Roosevelt implemented the so-called New Deal, a state intervention package to mitigate the misery of the greatest capitalist crisis in history.

The FSA did indeed hire photojournalists, both to document and plan public policy and to inform Americans. The images were published in the press, such as Life magazine and also inspired John Steinbeck.

“Show other Americans what happens in the field. A picture is worth a thousand words… It’s not true”, John heard from the project coordinator before leaving on his mission. When questioning the cause of the dust storms, the photographer receives the following response from an FSA employee: “They themselves are the causes”.

In addition to drought and wind, natural phenomena, there was human responsibility. Formed mainly by plains of undergrowth, the Dust Bowl suffered from successive harvests that weakened the soil. To increase productivity, tractors removed all the vegetation, which previously held the land. With no harvest, farmers found themselves in debt and many lost their properties to banks. Even those who were homeowners ended up abandoning their homes in search of work in California.

Both “Dias de Areia” and the FSA photographs show abandoned houses, with interiors full of newsprint lining the walls to cover the cracks. Other images show sheds completely buried in dust and desolate families ready to hit the road.

It was along Route 66 that the “okies” —a pejorative term used to refer to migrants from Oklahoma in California— traveled some 3,000 km west in search of work. The Joad family, from “Grapes of Wrath”, leaves with more than ten people, a dog, mattresses, clothes and pots in a van. Not all of them will reach the final destination.

The FSA was able to register several ongoing changes in the Dust Bowl states. “Cars full, caravans of homeless and starving people; 20,000, 50,000, 100,000, 200,000 were falling from the mountains, hungry and restless — restless as ants, hungry for work. […] Our children are hungry,” wrote Steinbeck.

The thousands who migrated to California still faced the excess of labor that brutally dropped wages. Furthermore, workers who organized themselves in unions in search of better conditions were persecuted and immediately replaced by hungry others. Steinbeck narrates the disenchantment of migrants who dreamed of the orchards and vineyards of the West.

The Dust Bowl ended in 1939, when the rains returned after about a decade of drought. But it wasn’t just drought and dust that hit the farmers. In the same period, plagues like locusts and hares ended up with what little was left.

“If I had to describe my stay at the Dust Bowl”, says the photographer character, and continues: “I would talk about the excruciating pain when the dusty wind whipped my skin. because of the dust. I would tell you how the human soul erodes little by little after days of sand. None of this can be captured by a camera”.

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