Some books shake you to the core. This is one of them. In Years of Dust, Albert Marrin weaves together stark, sometimes shocking photos, family stories and quotations, historic accounts, social commentary, poetry and song lyrics by Woody Guthrie, and much more to tell the story of how the Dust Bowl reshaped American (and world) history. Look into the lives–and eyes–of people who saw crops swept away, whose animals suffocated from dust storms, who stuffed rags into cracks in the walls in a vain attempt to keep the dust out, who had to tie ropes to their houses when going to the barn in order to navigate their way back. Dust clouds high as skyscrapers, lingering, persistent, and deadly, threatened the economic life of the country and pushed the courage of the Great Plains inhabitants to its very limits. If you want to see and hear how history sounds in the hands of a writer with deep understanding, check out this remarkable book. Here is informational writing at its finest: detailed, thoroughly researched, filled with voice. Marrin is an expert at intermingling genres and showing the power of thoughtfully chosen illustrations. This is an outstanding book for teaching detail, organizational design, strategies for achieving voice in informational writing, and the value of careful, creative presentation.
Ages: Middle school and up
In the Classroom
- Talk about the 1930s. What do your students know about American life during this time? Does anyone have a grandparent whose own parents or grandparents lived during this period? Does anyone have a family story to share–one that may have been passed down through generations?
- Find the Great Plains on a map of the U.S. Talk about the importance of this part of the country to our economy and food supply. Why does this part of the country matter geographically or economically? Do you happen to live in this region–or have any of your students lived in this region of the world? What is life like in this part of the country now? You might discuss economics, weather, cities, agriculture, and so forth. You may also wish to visually outline the area of the Dust Bowl. Maps in Marrin’s book will help with this.
- Does anyone in your class know where the term “Dust Bowl” comes from? Listen for Marrin’s explanation of this as you share the book.
- The photos in Marrin’s book are compelling. You might begin with those. Discuss their visual impact. How would it feel to live under such conditions? What kept these people going? Why did some survive? Consider writing some journal entries in the voices of various people who lived during this difficult time.
- Read segments of the book aloud. Talk about Marrin’s voice and writing style. How would your students describe it. Is it effective? How so?
- Think about genre. Ask students to listen to the ways the author combines factual information with narrative and historic research. Does he do a good job of combining genres? How many different genres can you identify working together in this book? Does multiple-genre writing enrich a topic?
- Discuss how this book is organized. How would your students describe its overall structure? Sometimes we describe organization in a fairly simple way: main idea and supporting details, good lead, effective conclusion. Does this relatively simple, skeletal description of organization fit–or not fit–Marrin’s book?
- Do some research of your own on the Dust Bowl, or on any aspect of American life in the 1930s. What additional information can your students provide beyond what is found in Marrin’s book? What additional quotations can they find? What other books provide additional information or perspectives on this time in history?
- Were the 1930s a more or less difficult time to be president than now? Do some persuasive writing about this.
- Could this book be the inspiration for a television documentary? If so, how would you go about producing it? What elements would be included? Would your students use Marrin’s text from the book–or revise it to make a voice-over for the documentary? Why?
- Write on-line reviews for this book for any website that sells it and invites such reviews. Students do not need to agree. However, reviews should be concise, thoughtful, and carefully written.
- Write a comparison between Years of Dust and any other historic text.
- Consider group projects in which each group chooses a particular time and culture to explore and bring to life, both in writing and through photos or video. Their complete work need not be as detailed as Marrin’s, of course, but encourage them to use varied genres and media (photos, quotations, song lyrics or actual music, video, audio, etc.) to give life and variety to their final history. Talk about what they learned from Marrin’s book that inspired them in their own work.
- Identify and view any films (such as “Grapes of Wrath”) that depict life during this time. Using Marrin’s book as a resource, discuss the authenticity of such films.