Heard of The Grapes of Wrath? Sure you have. Me too. Even if you haven’t read it (and I haven’t), most likely you know it’s about the Okies who were forced to relocate because of the 1930s Dust Bowl.

Very ashamedly, that’s about the sum total of my knowledge about the Dust Bowl until I read The Worst Hard Time by Timothy. Looking for the nearest soap box, I call over my shoulder, “This book should be required reading for every single American (and for non-Americans who are interested in the relationship between over farming and erosion or modern day plague-like happenings).”

This is a gross oversimplification, but starting in the 1870s the grasslands in parts of Colorado, Kansas, Texas, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Oklahoma were removed as farmers moved in and, well, started farming. WWI and the need for wheat, combined with good years of rain, stripped the land of the ability to protect herself when the rains stopped and a ten year drought started. If you think I’m exaggerating and surely it wasn’t that bad, you are not alone.

Many in the East did not believe the initial accounts of predatory dust until a storm in May 1934 carried the wind blown shards of the Great Plains over much of the nation. In Chicago, twelve million tons of dust fell. New York, Washington – even ships at sea, three hundred miles off the Atlantic coast—were blanketed in brown.”

Read that again. How many million tons of dust? How far off the Atlantic coast? I know, it’s hard to grasp.

Whenever I complain about the spring dust storms in Beijing, you have permission to tell me to get a life and remind me:

Cattle went blind and suffocated. When farmers cut them open, the found stomachs stuffed with fine sand. Horses ran madly against the storms. Children coughed and gagged, dying of something the doctors called ‘dust pneumonia.’ In desperation, some families gave away their children. The instinctive act of hugging a loved one or shaking someone’s hand could knock two people down, for the static electricity from the dusters was so strong…nothing compares to the black dusters of the 1930s, a time when the simplest things in life –taking a breath—was a threat.”

I have lived in Colorado and Kansas. My grandparents and great aunts and uncles lived through some of these hard times; because I thought it was just about Oklahoma and some John Steinbeck novel, I never talked to them about the storms or the drought or their experiences.

We can’t know everything. But this book reminded me of the vastness of what I don’t know. It also challenged me to ask more questions. This summer when I am back in the States I’m going to talk with my parents (and anyone else of a certain generation) and ask them what stories they recall people telling about that time.

Mom, Dad, world, you’ve been warned!

Poll on the Dust Bowl: Had you heard of blind cattle? Stomachs stuffed with dust? Muddy snow, not from melting, but from falling that way from the sky?