The Great Depression (1929-39) does not lend itself to ‘fun’ facts, but recalling it can help us cope during the pandemic. In The Four Winds (2021), Kristin Hannah writes a stirring story of an American family struggling to survive in the southern Great Plains during the Dirty Thirties — the decade-long Depression. Like us today, no one could anticipate at the outset how long it would last.
Although the pandemic restricts our lives, health authorities encourage us to go outdoors and embrace the healing power of nature. Not so in the dust bowl of the Depression. As drought destroyed crops, dust blew over the Great Plains. Inhaling the fine silt particles could lead to dust pneumonia, which was particularly lethal for infants, children and the elderly. In the book, the protagonist Elsa Martinelli observes: “Farmers studied the sky the way a priest read the world of God, looking for clues and signs and warnings… All of it with a faith in the essential kindness of our planet. But in this terrible decade, the weather has proven itself to be cruel. An adversary that we underestimated at our peril.”
Hannah started writing her historical fiction three years before COVID-19 struck but now acknowledges the timeliness of its publication. After reading of the hardships, I no longer grumble about the difficulty in getting fresh produce delivered to our door. About being prohibited from dining at restaurants, going to movies or travelling to our southern home and elsewhere. Following are a half dozen facts of the Great Depression:
- Over 20 percent (15 million people) of the population was unemployed and nearly half the banks shuttered when Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933. In addressing the nation, FDR famously declared: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
- In 1935 Congress passed the Social Security Act, providing Americans for the first time with unemployment, disability and pensions for old age (though the Act excluded farmers and domestic workers). The government also introduced a permanent jobs program that employed 8.5 million people from 1935-1943.
- Dust storms that turned daylight into darkness occurred often, the most severe on April 14, 1935 — called Black Sunday. An estimated 300,000 tons of Great Plains topsoil flew into the air, falling to the ground as far away as the East Coast. (To capture the sense of the day’s doom, folksinger Woody Guthrie composed “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You”.)
- Plagues of jackrabbits and grasshoppers descended on the Plains and devastated the meagre crops. Farmers beat the jackrabbits to death, the National Guard crushed grasshoppers and burned infested fields, while the Civilian Conservation Corps covered the land with an insecticide of arsenic, molasses and bran.
- The dust bowl was both a manmade and natural disaster. Farmers over-plowed and over-grazed the Plains. As a partial solution FDR established the Soil Conservation Service in 1935. Extensive re-plowing of the land into furrows, planting millions of trees to anchor the soil in shelterbelts, plus rotating crops resulted in a 65 percent reduction in the amount of soil blowing away by 1938.
- Despite massive unemployment, one group of Americans gained in jobs: women. From 1930 to 1940, the number of employed women in the U.S. rose 24 percent. (Of course women faced lower wages and ‘marriage bars’ in seeking employment. But those facts befit a different post.)
The current pandemic has caused more deaths than the Great Depression. And it has caused the worst economic downturn since that decade. Younger people and families are suffering more than I am. This pandemic may also be deemed “an adversary that we underestimate at our peril.” •
P.S. In 2020 Kristin Hannah added an author’s note: “We’ve gone through bad times before and survived, even thrived. History has shown us the strength and durability of the human spirit. In the end, it is our idealism and our courage and our commitment to one another — what we have in common — that will save us. Now, in these dark days, we can look to history, to the legacy of the Greatest Generation [so dubbed by Tom Brokaw] and the story of our own past, and take strength from it.”
P.P.S. Because The Four Winds takes place in Texas and California, the facts are American. However, the Great Depression was a worldwide social and economic shock. It hit Canada especially hard.