Henderson, Caroline. Letters from the Dust Bowl. Edited by Alvin O. Turner. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.

In this edited collection, Alvin O. Turner organizes and introduces the private correspondence and articles that Caroline Henderson wrote of life on the Great Plains from 1908 to 1966, many of which were published in The Atlantic Monthly magazine and other publications during her lifetime. According to Turner, Henderson was the leading voice of the Dust Bowl, not only then, but now. The author’s purpose in compiling Henderson’s writings in this manner was to create a clean copy of her letters and articles and make them accessible to new generations with annotations that help provide context for the writings. In those articles and letters, Henderson exposed the hardships endured by those who survived the Dust Bowl in the Great Plains with a special emphasis on women’s lives and the problems they encountered during the great ecological disaster that defined the 1930s.

Turner has chosen to present the information chronologically and that means that the reader gets a clear narrative of the life the Hendersons created for themselves on the Great Plains in the early part to the twentieth century. The reader is immersed in a vivid portrayal of the promise that appealed to many farmers from other parts of the country and the world before things fall apart during the Dust Bowl.

Henderson was born into a family of farmers in Iowa but after college and five years of teaching she moved to No Man’s Land to fulfill her dream of owning land. She married Will Henderson and had a daughter, Eleanor. The Hendersons, like many other famers on the Great Plains had a decade of prosperity in the 1920s. But the 1930s brought with it the Great Depression and the Great American Dust Bowl, the most devastating natural disaster to ever hit this country. The Hendersons chose not to leave their small house in the panhandle of Oklahoma despite the terrible weather and environmental conditions, until she finally had to go and live with her daughter in Arizona. Caroline and Will Henderson both died in 1966 after getting to visit their beloved home one last time. 

Chapter one entitled “Beginnings” spans from 1908 to 1914 and details the start of the Hendersons marriage, Caroline’s first writing gig, and the relationship between Rose Alden and Caroline. Caroline writes to Rose telling her about her homestead, she talks of her love for her land, which is infinite. Caroline writes to her about how she is getting married soon. In some ways Rose and Mrs. Alden are her last ties to home as Caroline does not communicate much with anyone in her family, but as I read the book, I did not think Caroline ever wished she was back in Iowa. She loved the land and in this first chapter we really see that.

There were a few bad seasons throughout these first few years and Rose is informed of those in the letters. Caroline’s first article appeared in The Practical Farmer and demonstrated that reading was a way of escape that allowed women to escape to place where there were no problems with crops and harvests. In 1913, Caroline wrote to the editor of Ladies’ World, a magazine devoted to women’s issues, and this resulted in Caroline being hired to write the Homestead Lady. In that column, she wrote about her life on the homestead, her life as a mother, wife and farmer, about her land, and anything else that seemed relevant. 

In the next chapter, entitled the “Hopeful Years” we learn that in 1913 despite their struggles the Hendersons renewed their commitment to the homestead. Caroline continued to write of blizzards and other natural disasters. In 1918, Ladies’ World magazine discontinued printing, but the Hendersons had a good crop that season and they were comfortable. We also learn that after the war, Rose Alden no longer saved the letters from Caroline so there is little communication to Rose documented during this period. During this time, we learned more about Caroline’s values from the Homestead Lady. She becomes more open with her religious beliefs and beliefs on education, war and simple things like relaxation and how to women spent their leisure time in the late 1910s and into the 1920s. 

            “Clouded Horizons” as chapter three is called, encompasses the period between 1929 and 1934. This is the end of the Henderson’s golden decade, and they enter the Great Depression along with the rest of the world. Caroline attended the University of Kansas during 1930 and 1931 and the comments from professors encouraged her to submit her writing to The Atlantic Monthly. Caroline also began corresponding with Evelyn Harris, who wanted to publish Caroline’s letters. The reader can see the strain of the environmental disaster bearing down on Caroline as she had the belief that she had lost all her self-respect by 1933, only she did not know she still had a long way to go to see the end of this troubling period. This chapter of the book is especially poignant since the reader is well aware that the Dust Bowl will continue on for the better part of a decade.

Chapter four, “Dust to Eat,” explains the years 1935 to 1937. In 1933 President Roosevelt was elected and his New Deal agenda began to be implemented rapidly to help those who were suffering the most during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. One of the first things President Roosevelt did was to institute the Civilian Conservation Corps, in which there was a branch that labored to ensure that soil conservation techniques were taught and practiced. This created relief for some of the Dust Bowlers. But federal government help could not solve the many ecological issues quick and terrible things continued to happen. Caroline Henderson wrote in an article in The Atlantic Monthly, “Dust to Eat,” in which she described the horrific conditions. There was dust everywhere, cumbersome dust that stuck to everything and crept everywhere. People swallowed the dust and spit it out. The dust made cleaning impossible and it got into the food and drink.  It was a compelling article that showed the truth behind this awful drought.

In the following chapter, “Slow and Partial Recovery,” we learn that between 1938 and 1951 there was a very slow recovery taking place in the Great Plains and across the country. The rain started to come but the winds still created struggles. Record-breaking rains in 1941 completely ended the Dust Bowl and revived the land. In 1948, the Hendersons had their best year financially. Caroline was wary of aging and because of her time in the dust and wind she was much more worn than she should be at her age.

The war successfully ended the Great Depression in the United States and after this Caroline began writing more to her family in Iowa. She came to believe that after making it through such a terrible time it must have been for something. Caroline Henderson is inspiring in that she endured something that grown men ran away from. Her love and faith in the land kept her grounded and only old age forced her to leave her beloved home.

The final chapter, “When Hope Has Gone” follows the last few years of Caroline’s life. These last few years present a sad picture. Caroline no longer wrote about her love of the land and what she planned to do, but she wrote to Eleanor about dismal tasks from her day. “It is disconcerting to note that another year is almost 1/3 gone—and nothing is done!” The Dust Bowl stole from Caroline Henderson something—her hope—but not her determination. This is what makes Mrs. Henderson the greatest voice to truly understand the Dust Bowl that any reader could ask for. She gives compelling evidence of how an environmental disaster can tear away at your soul and destroy your hopes.

Letters from the Dust Bowl is almost completely primary sources except for Turner’s annotations, and it offered a compelling and enveloping view into the life of a Dust Bowl woman. These sources are used very well because Turner’s goal was not to manipulate the message sent by them but to make the “raw” history available to new generations with enough contextual explanations that the history comes alive and is easily digestible even though it happened long ago. Turner’s annotations were most helpful in making the language of the 1920s to 1950s easily understandable for those who are not familiar with the vernacular of the first half of the twentieth century.

This book increased my knowledge greatly because it was not someone’s regurgitated secondary knowledge of the event but gave real information from someone who lived through the Dust Bowl. Although this book portrays the view of Caroline Henderson very well, we are not given a very good perspective of the period itself, there are a lot of statements that Caroline Henderson makes that leave you wondering if she was being dramatic at all. In this sense, a little more introductory historical material or even more robust footnotes that explained the background might better serve the reading audience.

This book would be very useful to someone who was interested in learning about the Dust Bowl and how it impacted American families living in the Great Plains. It would be useful for readers to understand what primary sources are and how they are used by historians to understand and write history to be able to understand what Turner is trying to accomplish. But in general, this is an incredible compilation of letters and articles written by Caroline Henderson that offer a poignant perspective into the life of American women in the Dust Bowl and beyond.

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