August 29, 2013


The Great American Dust Bowl. By Don Brown. Houghton Mifflin. $18.99.

About Time: A First Look at Time and Clocks. By Bruce Koscielniak. Sandpiper. $6.99.

     Don Brown’s The Great American Dust Bowl looks like a graphic novel, reads like a graphic novel and is paced like a graphic novel, but it happens to be fact, not fiction – and some terrifying fact at that, every bit as scary as what graphic novels typically offer. Brown builds the book toward the climactic dust storm of April 14, 1935, by starting with that storm – shown as a roiling dark-brown cloud before which animals as well as people are fleeing – and then backtracking to the history and prehistory of the American Midwest, briefly mentioning everything from the raising of the Rocky Mountains to the switch from an unsuccessful cattle-farming economy to one based on subsistence farming. The farm economy significantly contributed to the drying out of land that had long been arid already, and by 1931, when “the rains stopped and the misery of the Southern Plains deepened,” the scene was set for dust storms the likes of which no one in the region had ever seen before. Dust does not seem like much – Brown makes the point that five specks could fit within the period at the end of one of his sentences – so the sheer scale of the dust storms that swept the Plains during the 1930s is almost impossible to imagine. Brown rises to the occasion superbly, producing a spare narration and a set of illustrations done almost entirely in earth tones, with a mixture of yellow, brown and orange visually communicating the unrelenting dryness of the region at this time. Carefully understated drawings take on considerable meaning: a farmer glances heavenward, holding his hand out, palm up, in a hopeful gesture for rain that does not come; a woman’s expression changes significantly and resignedly after she tastes food into which dust from the storms has become mixed; a child packs his stuffed bunny as his family, beaten by the weather, pulls up stakes to leave the devastated region. Throughout The Great American Dust Bowl, Brown includes comments from people who were there and who lived through the devastation – quotations from the Oklahoma Oral History Research Project (OOHRP) are especially telling and unconsciously dramatic: "We watched the weather – we’d look up there and see a little cloud. Oh, we’d be so excited to see it. Oh, I know it – just prayed, ‘Come on, give us some drops.’” By the time Brown’s book reaches the climax of the almost unbelievable dust storm of April 14, 1935 – which was by no means the last of the storms – readers will fully understand another quotation from OOHRP: “I thought it was the last day of the world!” And they will have learned about some byways of Dust Bowl times, including reporter Robert Geiger, who covered the events and came up with the “Dust Bowl” name; phony rainmakers whose kites carried dynamite to clouds to try to explode water from them; eerie blue-glowing barbed wire – an effect of the swirling dust; and much more. Evocative, moody and genuinely enthralling, The Great American Dust Bowl is both a superb graphic novel and an astonishingly inventive history book. And it ends, almost offhandedly and after the narrative concludes, with a pair of thought-provoking photographs, one showing a dust storm in Texas in 1935 and one showing a gigantic storm of the same type over Phoenix, Arizona – in 2011. The juxtaposition is intense and highly thought-provoking.

     More conventional in approach but still very effective and well written and illustrated, Bruce Koscielniak’s About Time – originally published in 2004 and now available in paperback – starts and ends with a mystery: what exactly is time? Most of the book is about how time is measured, but what exactly is being measured? The question is one for philosophers, not writers of history, but it hangs over the entire book and lends it depth beyond its discussion of the various ways time has been kept for millennia. Koscielniak starts with astronomical time, explaining years, months and days by reference to Earth and the sun; then discusses calendars from the age of the Sumerians to the Gregorian calendar that is widely used today (mentioning along the way that the ancient Greeks used three 10-day weeks per month, while the Romans used an eight-day week until about the year 200). The real fascination of the book, though, comes as Koscielniak starts writing about and showing the constructions that people have built to measure and keep track of time. There are, for example, Egyptian obelisks and water clocks – the latter being a form of timekeeping also used by the Greeks and Romans – although, as Koscielniak points out, “water can freeze, produce algae, and block spouts with sediment and corrosion, all causing loss of accuracy in timekeeping.” The contrasts of the water clocks – from highly elaborate Chinese ones to later but simpler models used in medieval Europe – are very interesting, with Koscielniak’s straightforward illustrations giving a good sense of the general appearance of the timepieces and their functional elements. Then comes the invention, in the 13th century, of the first all-mechanical clock, and Koscielniak discusses escapements, pallets, weights, cranks, verges, crown wheels and other elements of clockmaking clearly – and illustrates the various parts well. Along the way, he explains where the word “clock” itself comes from (probably from a German word meaning “bell”) and why small portable timepieces are called watches (guards – known as watchmen – carried small clocks so they knew how long to stay at each duty post). Tracing clockmaking and watchmaking through pendulums to springs, tuning forks, quartz movements and atomic vibrations, Koscielniak brings this history of timekeeping to the present. But as he points out, ever since Einstein’s theories caused people to think of time in new ways more than a century ago, we have had even more reasons than in the past to consider just what time is. The way we measure it has changed, but its mystery endures.

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