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Letters from the Dust Bowl by Caroline Henderson

Alvin O. Turner (Ed.), 2001

Norman, OK, University of Oklahoma Press

320 pp., $34.90 hardback

ISBN 0-8061-33-3 hardback

The American 'Dust Bowl' landscape of the 1930s has been etched into the global imagination through powerful narratives: Farm Security Administration photography (1935-43), Per Loretz's film, The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936), and John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath (1939). In the last quarter of the twentieth century, historians such as Donald Worster (1979) have constructed their own narratives of this time and place. Caroline Henderson's Letters from the Dust Bowl, edited by Alvin O. Turner, provides a counterpoint, in the form of a first-hand account and a woman's voice, to the news stories, government propaganda, and historians' analyses that construct our understanding of the Dust Bowl. Henderson's letters reveal not only the 'real' experience of living in that place during a particularly difficult time, but also the 'before' and 'after'-what led these individuals to the Great Plains and what became of them afterward.

Educated at Mt Holyoke, Caroline Henderson ventured out onto the panhandle of Oklahoma to homestead in 1907 as a single woman, who 'hungered and thirsted for something away from it all and for the out-of-doors' (p. 33). She met her future husband Will when she hired a crew to dig a well on her land. Letters from the Dust Bowl captures Caroline's transformation from an idealistic young woman to a woman 'worn by years of struggle with land and life'. Caroline's 'letters' are an amalgamation of letters to family and friends, and letters and essays written for publications such as the Atlantic Monthly.

Letters begins with Henderson's optimism and delight in both life and landscape. Caroline's early writings capture the excitement of homesteading, of marriage, of being a young mother. Her writings eventually shift from purely personal letters to family and friends to being a source of additional income. Drought and failed crops led Caroline to begin writing for publication in 1913; her first published article was on her first years homesteading. She became a regular contributor to Ladies' World magazine, as their 'Homestead Lady', until its demise in 1918.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 1, 2003

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