Years of Dust (Dutton, 2009)

Years of Dust: The Story of the Dust Bowl

Albert Marrin

One dry year, rolling walls of dust began to invade the Great Plains. Nothing like it had ever been seen before. The dirty storms buried crops, blinded animals, suffocated children. They howled all the way to New York Harbor and the White House lawn, covering Eastern cities in prairie dirt. On the plains, families struggled to survive in a strange, hostile land, or took to the road as Dust Bowl refugees. Years of Dust is the story of the land, of the people who transformed it, and the terrible price they paid. . . As Earth’s populations grow and land continues to erode, it is a story that concerns not only America’s Dust Bowl, but the future of the world.



A Dust Bowl farm in the Texas Panhandle, photographed by Dorothea Lange, from “Years of Dust.” A man in rumpled clothes walks down a dirt highway. Ahead of him the ground and sky blur together in a bright haze. He has a bedroll slung on one shoulder and stoops a little from the weight. His boots are covered in dust. Turn the page: the man disappears. There’s a second photograph, twice as wide, with a road that is achingly empty. Overhead, a black cloud blots out the sky.
So begins “Years of Dust: The Story of the Dust Bowl,” Albert Marrin’s engrossing account of what was arguably the worst ecological disaster in American history. When a severe drought struck the Midwest in 1931, farmers had been churning up the Great Plains for more than half a century. Without native grasses to anchor the topsoil, fields crumbled to dust. Millions of acres of arable land were swept away in black blizzards. Hungry families headed west, pinning their hopes on California. Dust blew so far east, it settled on the White House lawn.
In the best possible way, “Years of Dust” feels like a museum in the form of a book. Marrin knits together natural science and sociology, news stories, snippets from novels and poems, eyewitness descriptions, journal entries, and the words of hard-time bards like John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie. His selection of photographs — paired with maps, posters, engravings and other artifacts — brings the blown-out landscapes to life.
... “Years of Dust” is a lucid and powerful book.

Excerpt from The New York Times Book Review, a review of Years of Dust By JESSICA BRUDER Published: November 5, 2009

Marrin’s approach to the story of the Dust Bowl is unique in its focus on ecology, arguing that the ignorant and exploitive practices of farmers, hunters and ranchers made the catastrophe worse than it needed to be. Hunting indigenous species such as the buffalo and prairie dog to near extinction, killing off predators of smaller animals, introducing cattle grazing, and destroying the natural landscape for farms and settlements all set the stage for the disaster to come. The author does not neglect the miseries suffered by families living in the afflicted areas, however, placing the story in the context of the Great Depression and explaining how what was happening in the Great Plains was yet another sign to Americans of the country’s downward spiral. The author concludes with a discussion of modern ecological disasters in the making. The engaging narrative includes quotes from a variety of primary sources, and it is abundantly illustrated throughout with photographs and other archival material, making this a reader friendly, insightful work of history.


This exceptional overview brings close the terrifying, bleak realities of the Dust Bowl. With his usual clear and thorough approach, veteran author Marrin puts the era into both historical and environmental context, starting with the ecology of the Great Plains and moving on to the human behavior that contributed to the catastrophe.. . Numerous well-integrated first-person accounts bring even more immediacy, and readers won’t forget the heartbreaking details of daily survival, both for those who stayed on the Plains and for the refugees who fled to become migrant workers. Among the riveting images that fill the well-designed pages are archival posters, news clippings, maps, and photographs, including Dorothea Lange’s indelible portraits.. . A time line, glossary, and chapter notes round out this exemplary cross-curricular title that encourages students to find the urgent connections between the “Dirty Thirties” and our current environmental crisis.