Monday, February 25, 2013

The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan

An extraordinary book about the dust storms on the High Plains in the 1930s. This book takes us into the lives of several people who made up the "nesters" - farmers, along with cowboys, ranchers, doctors, teachers, and newspapermen. We follow the history of the plains from the early twenties, when land was free or cheap and hopes were high, when government policy fed the ambitions of the settlers, on into the 1930s and the worst of the storms.

It is clear from our present perspective that the horrors of the "dust bowl" were man-made. It took a few years and some gutsy thinking people to get that message out during the worst of it and to start the process that would lead to some recovery. Not that these plains have ever fully recovered.

Of particular interest are the extraordinary details. What the storms did to people, animals, buildings, and what happened on the rare occasions when it actually rained. While in the air (which was most of the time) the dust created such static electricity that people were afraid to touch each other. The touch could knock them across a room. The electricity shorted out engines and started fires. The dust destroyed just about everything it touched, killing the natural animal and plant population while bringing in insects that thrived on what was left. Millions of acres of land were left sterile, while the swarms of dust moved into the cities, over other parts of the country, and into the ocean. The storms even reached New York City and Washington, D.C. on occasion.

How the government responded is another fascinating tale, featuring a president who couldn't think of anything to do - Hoover - followed by one who did everything possible - Roosevelt. It's possible that the biggest hero of the time was the person who took on a new governmental position under Roosevelt, Hugh Bennett, and came up with ways to hold the soil down. He didn't stop there, of course. He took his mission to the loners who made up the plains settlers and convinced them that they had to work together to fight this thing.

The story is devastating and often heart-breaking. And so very readable.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Started Early, Took My Dog - by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson's novels just delight me. I get great pleasure reading them. There are books that I like but these I love.

As in the others, this novel features a range of characters, some central and some peripheral. Jackson Brodie is again featured, former detective now supposedly retired. He falls for one more case: to find out who gave birth to a woman, Hope McMaster, a woman who now lives in New Zealand but who was born in England. Jackson figures it shouldn't be that hard, considering he's already traveling. Wandering, really, not settling anywhere. Might as well look into the case while he's on the road.

Another major character is Tracy Waterhouse, former police detective, present head of security for a retail store. Tracy is an amply-built woman who has made her job her life, for the most part. She is not married, has no children. When she spots a familiar woman on the street, pulling a small child, she can guess what will happen to that child when she gets home. She confronts the woman, a drug addict Tracy had arrested when she was with the police. On the spur of the moment she does something highly unusual and unexpected, which changes the course of her life.

When Jackson starts to hunt down birth and adoption records he runs into a blank wall. The presumed birth parents do not appear to exist. So who really did give birth to Hope?

There are other minor characters whose lives are intertwined with these and whose actions surprise and delight at times. It's like a full, satisfying meal that left me feeling just right. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Secret River, by Kate Grenville

Curious story. A kind of historical fiction that I can live with.

In 1806 William Thornhill, illiterate waterman, is convicted of theft and sentenced to hang. By paying for letters pleading his case to be sent to authorities, he manages to get his sentence commuted. He is sent to New South Wales (now Australia), along with his wife and small children, to live out a life sentence there.

The system in New South Wales allows Thornhill to work his way out of his life sentence. He is still "branded" as a former convict but is able to be free on the continent. Working on the water again, he discovers a piece of land that is fairly remote from any kind of civilization, and he covets that land. In time he moves his family there and they take on the task of creating a home and growing food, while he continues to run his boat.

Throughout this time he encounters "savages". There is a conflict, because they were there first, although they don't tend to have the same concept of property ownership. Thornhill and eventually his convict workers push against the land, forcing it into submission. He even makes a kind of peace with the savages, an uneasy one.

His wife Sal is strong and capable but not in love with this land. Thornhill is deeply in love with his wife and struggles with his two loves: the land and Sal. Eventually the savage situation comes to a head, an ugly and violent one. Throughout the book the tension is almost unbearable. In a way the ultimate "resolution" was almost a relief.

I read The Fatal Shore years ago. It impressed me with its details of convict life in early Australia and the settling of the continent at the expense of the aborigines. I remember life for the convicts being harder than indicated in this book, but there were different settlements. I have no reason to doubt the details in this book, written by an Australian writer and praised by fellow Australians. This fiction story fills out the story I read so long ago.