This is a genuinely Special Case for Dear America, and I won’t critique it any more than is absolutely necessary.
Survival in the Storm: The Dust Bowl Diary of Grace Edwards, Dalhart, Texas, 1935, Katelan Janke, 2002.
So, the author of this book was a 15-year-old girl who won the Dear America writing contest, therefore living out my dream in reality. This is why I won’t really criticize the writing or any of it too much, because: 15, and it’s not necessary to pick too much at the efforts of a (very talented) teenager. Katelan herself grew up in Dalhart, and based it on local stories and local lore, which I have zero problems with and turns out to be a really sweet way to do things.
This is one of the DA books that isn’t surrounding any one specific event, and there’s no overarching plot involved other than the ongoing Depression and Dust Bowl, which is fine. I tend to enjoy these books more than the ones that are detailing some important event anyway. Grace is twelve and lives with her parents and her younger sister on their farm in Dalhart, but things have been particularly difficult for the family ever since the drought began and they’re having a hard time making ends meet. Mostly, Grace bitches about the dust and how it just never stops—I like a lot of the details in here, like how they have to knead bread in a drawer because the dust blowing through the kitchen will get into their bread otherwise. She thinks her sister doesn’t do enough work around the house, and her mother is sort of permanently at the frustrated end of things (obviously), so Grace spends most of her leisure time playing with her best friend Helen.
Helen has four siblings, and they all live in a one-room cabin, since her parents have been even worse hit by the Dust Bowl. So while Grace is worried about her parents not having enough seed for the next year, they’re not nearly as bad off as Helen’s family. Both girls are consistently and constantly irritated with a mean girl at school, Sadie, whose family is particularly well-off and holds the mortgage notes for several other farmers in the area, including Helen’s family. Sadie is pretty stuck up about all the things her family can afford for her—new dresses and toys and a set of beautiful horses, while Grace hasn’t had a dress that wasn’t made out of feed sacks in years, and Grace’s sister Ruth has one single doll to play with.
When a “duster,” or a dust storm, hits their area, there’s nothing anyone can do besides cover their faces and wait. They’re all breathing in the dust while it collects in huge drifts outside the house, and covers every surface inside the house. So their lives are a constant round of waiting out the terrible dust storms, and then cleaning the house over and over and over again. Grace’s family is bad enough of that they consider taking out a mortgage against the house, but opt not to after all. Grace is more concerned with the Dramatic Competition they’re going to hold at the end of the school year, where she’s going to put on a skit with Helen and a few of her other friends. But Helen seems to be not as excited—her mother needs her at home all the time, and there’s never enough food for all seven in her family.
At the end of April, Helen and her family leave for California. There’s just not enough of anything to go around, so they pack up their belongings into the car and head off, and Grace feels like her world has turned upside down. The following Sunday is Palm Sunday, and a massive duster hits, worse than anything they’ve ever seen. Ruth is sent out to bring in the laundry off the line, but when Grace goes out to fetch her back in, Ruth is down the hill chasing after a towel. Grace goes to get her, but they can’t get back to the house in time, and end up taking refuge during the storm in an old abandoned house nearby. When their father and the search party find them, they’re weak and unable to move after breathing in so much dirt, and they’re ill for days, coughing up dirt and dust.
Grace’s father joins the Last Man club, a group of men pledging to never leave and go to California or anywhere else for greener pastures. But that isn’t enough to keep them, so they end up selling off a cow. Some of the other local families go on relief, and there’s a little bit of disconnect when her parents say up and down that there’s nothing wrong with relief if you need it, but they wouldn’t go on relief unless they were on the point of starvation themselves.
Grace and her friends lose miserably to Sadie and her clique at the dramatic competition at the end of the year. I enjoyed this, really—I like a story where the protagonist doesn’t end up winning everything at the end. Although this isn’t the end. But you know what I mean. Even when Grace finally gets a letter from Helen, it doesn’t cheer her up, mostly because it’s just more depressing news—how long the trip to California has been, and how hot and tired they all are. But when they do reach California, Helen writes about how beautiful it is and how it was worth it—not that this makes any difference to Grace, whose family is not going anywhere.
In July, Grace’s mother learns how understaffed the hospitals are, and since she was a nurse before getting married, opts to go work there for a few hours a week. Grace goes with as a nursing assistant (there was a time when twelve-year-olds could do that), and finds that she doesn’t totally mind the work. A traveling respiratory doctor, Dr. Lambert, comes to Dalhart to assist with the patients with dust pneumonia, and brings his son David, who is just about Grace’s age. They start to chat, and Grace develops an enormous crush on him, and they have his family over to dinner and things generally seem to be looking up. When the Lamberts leave, they exchange addresses, so Grace can have two friends to write to.
Unfortunately, Dr. Lambert couldn’t save one of his patients, Hannah, the six-year-old daughter of family friends and Ruth’s best friend. She dies of dust pneumonia just a couple of weeks later, and her family packs up and leaves for California the following day, unable to stand it any more. When school starts again, Ruth tries to befriend another new little girl in her class, but the new girl, Lenora, won’t talk to anyone or do anything. But the more interesting problem is that Sadie and her family have just up and disappeared—nobody knows where they’ve gone.
Lenora’s family’s home burns down in a cooking accident, and she loses her beloved rag doll. Ruth tries to make her a new one, but ultimately just gives Lenora her own beloved rag doll. Then there’s more news from California, when Helen writes to say that Sadie and the McCall family have turned up in California as well! Apparently they were all underwater in their debts and couldn’t pay them back, so they skipped town. Sadie has lost a lot of her snotty attitude, and actually apologizes for being so rude to Helen back in Texas. Sadie even writes to Grace, apologizing to her for being so cruel, but Grace finds it harder to forgive—since after all, she hasn’t shown any remorse in person to Grace. But she decides that she can be a better person going forward.
In the epilogue, Grace and David get married and become a nurse-and-doctor team who serve patients all throughout the rural Texas panhandle.
Rating: B+. It’s so sweet. I do love these books that don’t have a huge overarching plot, and I love all the details that Janke put in—it’s a great case of Did The Research. It’s a sweet story, the characters are nice if they’re a little on the scantily-drawn side, but like I said—I’m not going to argue with the efforts of a teenager. And besides, she absolutely got to live my dream of writing a Dear America book, so I can’t possibly argue with this. I enjoy that she set it in her hometown, and I like the theme of persistence and friendship. Really, the only thing keeping it from a strong A rating is that it’s on the short side. Other than that—I loved it.