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TV review: Nation brought to its knees in 'The Dust Bowl'

Ken Burns documentary shows how nation was brought to its knees

Published: Saturday, Nov. 17 2012 2:00 p.m. MST

Farm with huge dust cloud approaching, dust storm near barn. April 15, 1935. Boise City, Oklahoma. During the decade-long drought that turned the southern Plains into the Dust Bowl, the hardest hit area was centered on Boise City, Okla., in a part of the Panhandle formerly known as No Man?s Land. And the worst storm of all hit on Palm Sunday, April 14, 1935 ? a day remembered as Black Sunday. Here the storm sweeps over a farmstead on its way toward Boise City.

Dorothea Lange, Library of Congress, Historic Adobe Museum

One survivor describes it as "surreal," while another says it was "unbelievable." After giving it much thought, one elderly woman says she felt their situation was "almost evil."

"I don't care who describes that to you, nobody can tell it any worse than what it was," says Don Wells, a native of Boise City, Okla. "And no one exaggerates that. There is no way for it to be exaggerated."

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was the worst man-made ecological disaster in the country's history. Over-plowing of once-fertile farmlands and a decade-long drought virtually swept away the breadbasket of the nation. And Mother Nature responded by bringing American farmers to their knees. The Great Plains became a desert, and the catastrophe took the lives and hopes of many.

This "10-year apocalypse" is the focus in PBS' "The Dust Bowl," from the master of documentaries, Ken Burns. The film airs on KUED at 7 p.m. today and Monday; and on KBYU at 8 p.m. Tuesday, and Wednesday.

The Dust Bowl" is everything you'd expect it to be when Burns is at the helm: vivid narration, insight from historians, and gripping archival photography and film footage. But it is the heartbreaking memories from those who lived through it that makes the film more than a textbook. And this oral history is about to be lost forever. Except for one on-camera interviewee who was an adult in the 1930s, everyone else sharing their stories were children or teenagers at the time.

"Everything was full of dust," says Margie Daniels of Hooker, Okla. "If you were cooking a meal, you'd end up with dust in your food and you would feel it in your teeth. You'd start to eat and when you would drink water or something, you would grit down and you always felt like you had grit between your teeth."

Imogene Glover of Guymon, Okla., recalls, "We had meager food at that time. Everyone did. And we lived literally on cornbread and beans. That was our main meal and at night we'd just have cornbread and milk, but so did everybody else. In fact, I felt like we had good food compared to a lot of people."

Amid these accounts are tales of heroic perseverance as government agencies and farmers worked together to develop new farming and conservation methods. Also documented are the families who fled to California, seeking better lives.

But let me whisper something into your ear: The film is too long. At a full four hours in length, "The Dust Bowl" soon becomes mind-numbing. Near the end of the first half, singer Woody Guthrie, an itinerant songwriter at the time, begins to sing his "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You." Viewers might just share the sentiment.

Before KBYU's presentation of "The Dust Bowl," the channel will air an original documentary, "Utah's Perfect Storm: Drought, Debt and the Great Depression." Designed for junior and high school students, the half-hour program examines the community of Grantsville, which went through much the same scenario that the Midwest experienced.

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