The Dust Bowl has been associated with the Midwestern plains, especially the southern part of the country such as in Texas and Oklahoma. The Dust Bowl area suffered black outs from the blowing dust and the loss of good soil in the 1930s. Some of the dust storms were so terrible they were called dust blizzards. The history of that tragic time is chronicled by Donald Worster in his book Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, the 25th Anniversary Edition. The book was first published in 1979 and it won the Bancroft Prize that year; a prize which is awarded each year by Columbia University trustees. Worster has written a suspenseful and detailed book about the 1930s and the Dust Bowl. The book does not read like a dry history book at all. The people of that time come alive with their own words and with photographs of how their lives were affected. Worster includes maps, photographs, quotations and tables that help the reader find the place where the action he has described took place. He has also included song lyrics and copies of newspaper articles from that time. The extra information has been successfully added to the text so that the history has become much easier to understand. Not only that, also the history becomes more personal. It becomes easy to care about those people in the past and their land.
This book review has included a look at the perspective of the author, Worster, one of the first and most respected environmental historians. His style of presenting history and how human land use has become a part of history have been reviewed. The plains which were formerly grasslands have represented something very important to the author throughout his life. The relationship between the author and the plains has been discussed first because this relationship also has an effect on the reader. Although some may argue that a book of history should be 100 percent subjective that has never been possible. The author has described his love for the plains and has explained that a main reason for writing the book was to show his respect and admiration for the plains.
Worster (2004) explained that he has a personal relationship with the Plains because he was born, grew up and spent the first twenty years of his life on the Midwest plains of Kansas. He explained that residents from the 1930s would be able to understand “. . . My situation and feelings exactly: the return of the native who discovered that during his absence how much he loves the home country, but who cannot, for all that, view it without criticism” (Worster viii). The attitude of the author towards the subject can be a tip to whether the history book will be mediocre or really good. Worster has described his respect for the area plus his gratitude to the people and place that shaped his early years. And importantly he has made clear that he was not shy about pointing out the flaws. Unless an author has a willingness to write both the good and the bad in a history book a whole picture cannot be formed by the reader.
Worster is considered one of the first environmental historians. White has described him as “the most thoughtful and stimulating of the American environmental historians” (1112). White also that Worster “places environmental history at the point where the natural and the cultural intersect and interact with each other” (1112). An earlier book by Worster, An Unsettled Country: Changing Landscapes of the American West, has demonstrated his sensitivity to inclusive history as do most modern historians. Something that is less common though is to respect the environment as part of history which Worster has done without overstating his case.
. . . Many historians would insist that the making of the West must be seen as the work of women and men, and of Indians, Hispanic, African-Americans, and other
citizens, too. But commonly historians along with filmmakers, liberals . . . (and) conservatives . . . agree on one conclusion: nature was passive and ineffectual, a blank slate without form or meaning, before humans arrived, and the land contributed nothing to the triumph of civilization. (An Unsettled Country 156)
One of the most surprising things the author described in the book is how farm machinery affected farmers in so many parts of the country. He explained this by giving famous examples. For instance, he pointed to the examples of The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck and the photographs by Lange and Taylor. We may all have read the book or seen the photographs but not many of us understood the whole picture of what was happening in the United States to farmers. Farmers, who could move on, left the Dust Bowl with their families when growing crops became impossible. Unfortunately, once they moved to the west coast where they expected to find work they were sadly disappointed. The new phenomena of factory farms had arrived first. Not only had the families become “refugees from dust” the opportunities they expected in California did not exist. According to Worster in California the people were reduced to “disfranchised, exploited class of workers, supporting with hard labor their rich, absentee masters” (Dust Bowl 56). Steinbeck was not the only person to write about the problems either. The financial magazine ‘Fortune’ described how ten percent of the farms in California produced more that 50 percent of the crops. The story in ‘Fortune’ was published earlier than The Grapes of Wrath. Worster explained how ‘Fortune’ assessed the problem as “Exploitation of the land through profit-seeking factory farming, directly connected to the exploitation of farm workers, was where the nation’s farms long had been going, and now, at least in one state they had arrived” (Dust Bowl 54).
Worster is correct to examine the impact of land use by human beings in the southern plains. Not only did the damage caused to the areas ruin the soil for growing crops; it also ruined the hopes and dreams of all the families who had settled there for a better life. The shocking consequences of the Great Depression were felt in the cities first. There was a lag time before the significance of the economic crisis hit the southern plains. But when it did the result was devastating. The Dust Bowl has become a vivid picture of the destruction and despair in the Great Depression. Worster has written his history as a cautionary tale on how the American economic system caused the problem.
In the beginning The Dust Bowl described the American plains as a “next year” part of the United States (Worster 26). People in the area would hope for rain “next year” because with rain their crops would do well. They would stay one more year because “next year” the drought would end and the dust storms would be over. This hope in the face of despair has been shown to be a major characteristic of survivors. But what is the feeling of people living in the area today as drought and dust storms have returned with a vengeance? Do they also feel hope in the face of despair? These are very different times from the 1930s but the similarities are not happy ones. Mother Nature has not sent rain and the country is experiencing hard economic times. Sadly little seems to have been learned from the tragedy of the 1930s Dust Bowl experience. That was over eighty years ago and unfortunately any lessons learned were forgotten or discarded. On the other hand the ability to make positive changes may no longer rest in the hands of the residents of the plains. The current government has an overwhelming bipartisan personality which cannot offer the same solutions as Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to implement. The 25th Anniversary of Dustbowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s has shown its lessons to be timely even in the new millennium. This book is important for everyone to read then, they need to become involved in remedying the situation. The book began with a description of the false hope of homesteaders and farmers in the 1930s. By the end of the book the reader should question the false hope that God intended humans to take dominion over nature even if it meant damaging nature in the new millennium.
White, Richard. “Environmental History, Ecology, and Meaning” The Journal of American History, 76(4): 1111-1116, March 1990.
Worster, Donald. Dustbowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, 25th Anniversary Ed. New York City: Oxford University Press. 2004. 
Worster, Donald. An Unsettled Country: Changing Landscapes of the American West. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 1994.
Wunder, John R., Kaye, Frances W., and Carstensen, Vernon, Eds. Americans view their dust bowl experience. Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado. 1999.