In the 1930’s, the wheat belt suffered the effects of a disastrous drought. Angry clouds of dust brought violent storms that left destroyed crops, homes and animals in its wake. Farmers suffering from the strain of trying to save their crops and their animals were unable to find a solution. They found it impossible to support and protect their families. The economic loss and emotional stress was huge. Their prayers went unanswered as their land continued to dry up and their crops failed. They tried everything, even rainmakers, but they, too, failed in their attempts to bring rain. Many farmers simply gave up and left the wheat belt part of the Great Plains, alternately called the bread basket, to begin again in the west, hoping that California would bring them better fortune.
This book is about that time in our nation’s history. It begins in 1934, in Mulehead, Oklahoma, and it carefully describes the conditions the farmers lived through and the effect it had on their families, their lifestyles and their behavior. The inability to control what was happening to them influenced changes in their dreams and ultimately in their behavior. They wanted something to cheer them up, something to dream about, and something to make them feel good again. They were so tired of feeling dejected and helpless. Some picked up stakes and moved on, some grew desolate and more bitter.
Annie is thirty-seven. She married Samuel Bell against the wishes of her preacher father and strait-laced mother who hoped she would marry a minister. They did not want her to marry a farmer, but she has been on the farm now, for 19 years. Together, she and Samuel had traveled to Oklahoma where they got a free piece of land to farm. They had very little, but they had their deep affection for one another and their youth to inspire them. They began a family, but sadly suffered the loss of their second child, shortly after its birth. It deeply affected Annie and it caused a fracture in the relationship between them. They grew a little distant. Their first child, named Birdie (Barbara Ann), is 15 when the novel begins. She was a bit of a dreamer, often wiling away the time unproductively. Their third child, 8-year-old Fred, was warm, sweet and kind. Unlike his sister, he did his chores on time and was eager to follow the rules. However, he was unable to speak from birth and was also asthmatic. Still, he was much loved by all of them and they watched over him carefully in order to keep him safe and as healthy as possible.
When the dust storms began, the farmers were confused. As the skies darkened, they expected the relief of rain. Instead, the storm brought only wind and dust that poured down in thick layers of dirt. It was the dust that gathered up into the clouds from the arid lands that could no longer support the livestock or the growth of crops. Animals and humans could suffocate under its blanket. The fear and frustration of what the future would bring affected each of the Mulehead neighbors differently. Some farmers believed in miracles, some simply gave up and moved away or took their own lives when they lost everything they had worked so hard to achieve.
The effects of the drought on the Bell family led Annie to seek solace and physical pleasure elsewhere. When she met Jack Lily, she began to feel fulfilled again, although the feelings were accompanied by doubt and guilt. She had thoughts of escaping from her life of hardship, from leaving the farm and her family.
Samuel grew closer to G-d and began to believe he was receiving messages. He had nightmares about floods and was inspired to build a boat with Fred’s help. Noah-like, he prepared for the coming devastation that he believed would soon arrive. Annie and the townspeople mocked him.
Barbara Ann was kind of innocent and naïve. She fell in love with a boy, Cy Mack, from a family of sharecroppers. She thought they would soon marry. They had dreams of running away to places where people had fun, to big cities where there were clubs, where life was more exciting. Lust and passion overtook the young couple, and they soon found a way to be together in private. Much to her chagrin and surprise, Barbara Ann who had never even considered the idea that she could become pregnant, discovered that it was highly possible.
The backgrounds of many of the characters were scarred by the secrets of their childhoods, their family backgrounds and the hardscrabble lives they led. As the secrets in the Bell household began to multiply and as the drought continued, catastrophe seemed to be impending. How would they deal with their secrets if they were uncovered? It was hard enough to deal with the loss of their land, their personal tragedies and their broken dreams as the deprivation of the dust bowl continued. It put a strain on every relationship. Could they survive the discovery of their transgressions also? It was simply impossible to escape from the devastating effects of nature when it could not be tamed. Would they be able to hold on to their hopes and dreams in the face of such adversity?
*** Mulehead Bottom is located in the Robert S. Kerr reservoir which is actually located in the Arkansas river