Years of Dust
December 7, 2009 By 27 Comments
I‘ve mentioned YEARS OF DUST by Albert Marrin in this post and that one, but it’s never had its own post until now. Debbie Reese posted some of her objections to the book on her blog and I wanted to address those concerns.
1. My understanding is that the hunters as a group ate several pounds of meat, not each individual hunter.
2. Debbie, your objection to the Schreyvogel illustration is a classic logical fallacy called argument ad hominem (attacking the man) and really amounts to nothing. What you need to do here is to show that this particular illustration is inaccurate (i.e. the Indian dress is inaccurate, the hunting method depicted is inaccurate, etc.) I understand that his background makes you suspicious, but you need to take the next step and show us that this particular photo does not serve the text, otherwise you are just as shoddy a researcher as you accuse Marrin of being.
3. I’m not sure how widely you read nonfiction, but it’s perfectly acceptable to quote a piece of fiction to illustrate a point and there are many recent books that we could cite. Indeed, we already discussed how CHARLES AND EMMA effectively alludes to Charles Dickens and Jane Austen to give readers an idea of the setting. In this case, it is widely known that the Wilder books are fiction, but autobiographical, and thus the quote is particularly effective at making that point.
4. You say there is no mention of American Indians in the main text–that they are relegated to sidebars–and then later you confess that you only read a quarter of the book and browsed some of the rest. But actually the Seattle quote and the "Migrant Mother" anecdote are in the main narrative. So you cannot really make that claim, right? Nevertheless, the reason the American Indians do not figure more prominently in the main narrative is because their use of the land did not cause soil erosion, despite the same cycle of drought that occurred once whites settled the land. If you’d like to argue that American Indians did cause the Dust Bowl . . . well, I’m all ears. Marrin discusses the buffalo in the main text to contrast them with cattle and the way the two animals eat the plains grass differently and how that difference leads to soil erosion. Yet Marrin does not want the plains to seem devoid of American Indians and that’s why they get sidebars. The sidebars provide for interesting diversions from the text, but don’t necessarily support the main thrust of the narrative.
5. There are a couple of instances where you take things out of context. First, Marrin is imputing this thought–Flat, treeless, and dry, the grasslands were fit only for wild beasts and nomadic Indians–to the Army officer. It is not Marrin’s view and he clearly disapproves of it. And, likewise, this statement which Marrin imputes to white settlers of the time: Progress, as white people saw it, demanded that both the buffalo and Indians should go. Are you really disputing this? It seems like you spend lots of time and energy decrying this viewpoint, and yet when Marrin joins your fight . . . you take issue?
6. You do have some arguments that I am receptive to. First, I agree with you about the Anasazi being the ancestors of the Pueblo, but I’d like to double check this quote to see its context, and I don’t have the book in front of me. And, second, I think you may have a really good point–and your strongest argument–about the Hopi Snake Dance (although you imply by innuendo that there is something wrong with the caption but you never really tell us what it is). I’ll try to look into these further.
7. I think the incorporation of Florence Owens Means (aka Migrant Mother) shows how Marrin has attempted, at least, to acknowledge American Indians. He could have told the story of the Dust Bowl without any mention of American Indians–indeed, many have probably already done so–but he did not, and whether or not you think he successfully depicted their place in history and ecology, I think you have to acknowledge the effort.
8. The Gore quote that you cite actually acknowledges that this speech/letter has passed through "numerous translations and retellings" so I think Gore, at least, has an understanding that these are not Chief Seattle’s actual words. Gore implies that there is a kernel of truth that has survived these numerous versions–and he may be right, of course–but we have no way of knowing it. I would like to encourage you to read the rest of the book, Debbie, and continue this dialogue. If YEARS OF DUST and A SEASON OF GIFTS are up for consideration for an award, then each and every member of that committee will read the book in its entirety, at least once, probably more times. I think it behooves us to make the same effort, especially when we would damn or praise these books.