Dust Bowl

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Dust Bowl
The path of people in flight

It's no secret that The Grapes of Wrath was chosen in large part for its relevance to today's economic recession. The book vividly explores the consequences of depression, drought, dust storms, and degradation through the lives of an Oklahoma farm family, the Joads. They, like hundreds of thousands of others, were forced off their land and took to the road.  In rereading The Grapes of Wrath, I was most struck by that theme of upheaval. I kept imagining a country in motion, much like a wave moving across the top of Cayuga Lake, a terra fluida.  Steinbeck described Route 66, the principal highway to California, as "the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert's slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there." The movement was both away from an intolerable situation and towards a tantalizing promised land.  Steinbeck focuses mostly on the latter, with much of the story centering on how disillusioning and difficult life was in California.   But I kept thinking about the effect on Oklahoma of such a mass migration out of state. Most of those who made the trip stayed in California and eventually found steady work, especially once war production jump-started the economy. Few took the trip back home, and Oklahoma was one of five states--all of them from the Great Plains--to lose population during the Depression. Between 1930 and 1940, Oklahoma's population declined by 3%, Kansas' by 4% and Nebraska's by 4.5%. It took two decades for Kansas to surpass its 1930 population level. It was nearly 1960 before Nebraska regained that number. Oklahoma's population did not recover until the mid 1960s when gas production again became a profitable industry.  By comparison, California's population increased nearly 22% during the...
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