On May 11, 1934, an unusual storm struck New York City. It was not snow or hail or even rain that fell, but a black cloud of dust. For a few hours, it transformed the city. The Statue of Liberty was invisible behind the onslaught of dust, and particles coated the water and the sidewalks. The cloud had actually originated thousands of miles away from New York and was part of a larger phenomenon, and one of the biggest environmental disasters in American history: the Dust Bowl.
In this month’s Reading into History book, the graphic novel The Great American Dust Bowl, author Don Brown tells the story of the disaster that plagued the Great Plains region of the United States. With compelling images and words, Brown unpacks how this decade-long catastrophe—caused by both man-made and natural forces— impacted people’s lives.
Author and illustrator Don Brown will be joining us at New-York Historical in person on Sunday, April 14 to discuss his novel and chat with readers. After a discussion and a Q&A with Brown, we will explore our new exhibition Hudson Rising to talk about some contemporary ecological concerns and environmental activism right here in New York.
Can’t wait to learn more about the book? Check out our interview with Don Brown below, and we’ll see you on April 14!
Haven’t been to book club before? Come to your first meeting for free! Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll get you set up.
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: Although the Dust Bowl took place in the 1930s, you start your story many years before… “sixty to one hundred million years ago” to be exact! Why is it important to look so far back when studying and writing about environmental history?
Don Brown: The environment moves to the clock of deep time. Events can unfold over eons. So it should give us all great pause when environment issues, such as the Dust Bowl and climate change, gallop forward uncharacteristically.
DCHM: The Great American Dust Bowl is a story told with both words and pictures. Why do you think that images are crucial to telling a story like this?
DB: An image can speak to an issue more deeply and viscerally than text. For example, in The Great American Dust Bowl, I portray an event in which a boy is overcome by a dust storm while outside, is unable to find his way back home, and perishes. The successive panels of art showing the boy being overwhelmed by the dust until he disappears powerfully underscores the tragedy.
Imagery is the vessel that propels the written story.
DCHM: What was the most challenging part of this story to illustrate?
DB: Portraying the depth of the tragedy without sensationalizing it or being inflammatory, all the while keeping true to the facts.
DCHM: What sort of research did you do?
DB: The research was straightforward: mostly books and periodicals. I did stumble upon a terrific oral history collection of Dust Bowl survivors, elders remembering their youth. Also, as a bit of “pre” research, I had driven through the heart of the old Dust Bowl locale. I had been driving cross country and found myself cutting across the high southern plains, Oklahoma towards Kansas. I was astonished by the flatness of the place; I could spy the curvature of the earth on the distant horizon. I later learned that it’s the flattest spot on the planet. Casual reading about the area led me to stories about the Dust Bowl which, in turn, let me to making the book.
DCHM: At the end of the book, you speak about contemporary American environmental disasters. What do you hope that young people reading your book today learn about environmental crises?
DB: I want readers to understand that abusing the environment, as was the case in the origins of the Dust Bowl, has consequences. Failing to be good stewards of the environment means punishment for us all.
DCHM: What three words would you use to describe The Great American Dust Bowl?
DB: Riveting, insightful, and informative.
Written By Caitlin O’Keefe