Book Review: Children of the Dust Bowl

Children of the Dust Bowl – The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp, Jerry Stanley, Crown Publishers, 1992

Books about the Great Depression tend to be… depressing. And for good reason-it was a time of economic ruin resulting, for many people, in poverty, hunger, dislocation and the beginning of the welfare system which continues to bring about ruin to lower income families in this country today.

But Jerry Stanley’s Children of the Dust Bowl is different, not being depressing in the least. It has the same Grapes-of-Wrath-looking photographs of Okies with rocking chairs tied on top of the trucks, and the haunting Dorthea Lange photo of the despairing mother with her children’s faces buried in her shoulder. But this book is about hope. About refusing to quit, pulling up your socks, making the best of what little you have, and overcoming the obstacles in your path.

Children of the Dustbowl tells the story of a tiny town in California, where during the Great Depression there lived a man who made a difference. His name was Leo Hart and he was the superintendent of education in Kern County, California.

His idea was for the Okie children, despised and unwanted by the tax-paying citizens of the county, to build their own school building from the ground up, using donated materials, as part of their education. In his school, the curriculum included the three Rs, of course, but also framing, plumbing, electrical wiring, carpentry, and masonry. The students learned animal husbandry, butchering and agriculture through raising the food for their school lunches. And in a C-46 airplane which was no longer flight-worthy, aircraft mechanics. In chemistry class the girls learned to make their own cosmetics. It was that kind of school, giving the student a practical education, designed to give the students important life skills; Leo Hart described it as “a broader and richer curriculum.” And students who did well in their studies were allowed the privilege of helping to dig the hole for what would become their swimming pool – the first in the county.

Ironically, after a few years, the people who had made building a separate school necessary because they hadn’t wanted the down-and-out Okie kids in their own schools, were trying to get their kids into Weedpatch School – it was the best in the district.

My copy of this book was discarded from a middle school library, so I guess that’s the age range publishers intend it for, but it could be read aloud to younger children and I totally enjoy reading it (and re-reading it) myself.