The novel takes place during the Dust Bowl period in America in the 1930s; it was a period of severe dust storms that greatly damaged the ecology and agriculture of the American and Canadian prairies. At least 250,000 people fled the Plains to the West to find a new job. This novel’s protagonist, Elsa, is one of those who moved to the West during the Dust Bowl.
Below is a famous picture of one of those women who suffered from desperation and starvation during the Dust Bowl that may give you a clear picture of who the progratonist might look like in an actual world back in 1930s. I will share my key takeaways from the novel in this essay.
#1. Break free from the mirror
Elsa is continuously afraid to break free from what her parents and society tell her — her parents treated her as a flaw in her family because of her physical unattractiveness. As her parents reminded her of her inability to accomplish the things she wanted in her life such as going to college to study literature or exploring different places around the world, she always thought of herself as less than others.
As she ventures through her life in a way she never could have imagined after moving from Texas to California, her friend, Jean, who she met in a ditch bank camp, tells her to break the mirror she saw herself in and suggests Elsa to see through herself with a renewed mirror.
Elsa: “The things your parents say and the things your husband doesn’t say become a mirror, don’t they? You see yourself as they see you, and no matter how far you come, you bring that mirror with you.”
Jean: “Break it,” Jean said.
Jean: “With a gosh dang rock.”
One day, she takes a leap of faith and goes outside of the house despite her parents’ disapproval, wearing a red silk dress she made for herself and meets Rafe Martinelli. She falls in love with Rafe and conceives her first daughter. Her parents are extremely upset about Elsa tainting her family’s reputation and abandons her.
“For once, she had not let someone else tell her where she belonged.”
#2. Love. In the best of times, it is a dream. In the worst of times, a salvation.
Martinelli’s family accepts Elsa with love and Elsa learns what love truly is when she gives birth to her first child, Loreda.
“There was something she hadn’t known when she went into marriage and became a mother that she knew now: it was only possible to live without love when you’d never known it.”
“You are of me, Loreda, in a way that can never be broken. Not by words or anger or actions or time. I love you. I will always love you.”
She becomes to love the land she lives in (‘Lonesome Tree’) and practices the beauty of putting food on her table with hard work and diligence. However, the Dust Bowl comes and her family suffers from severe poverty as the land is unable to produce anything due to the unwavering aridness. Elsa, Loreda and her son, Anthony (‘Ant’), and her parents-in-law endure the hardship but never gives up hope that there will be rain soon and the land would be quenched and filled with golden wheat.
Years go by, the dust and dryness exacerbate, and the land becomes more futile. Her husband, Rafe, leaves the family in the middle of the night; and her son is severely ill due to the excessive inhalation of dust and has to leave Texas immediately. Elsa decides to head West where the land is advertised to be filled with abundant jobs and opportunities to rebuild the family.
#3. You were brave because of your fear, not in spite of it.
When Elsa arrives California with Loreda and Ant, they find themselves looked down upon by Calfornianas as ‘Okies’ and have to live in a ditch bank camp like all the other people who moved from the Plains to the West. Elsa tries to find a job and works hard to educate Loreda and Ant but the reality is harsh — she finds a cotton-picking job that pays her less than $1 for 10–12 hours of brutal work, but even finding such a job is a challenge as there are so many people like her who’s desperate to put food on the table and are willing to do anything for even a sliver of money.
The wealthy farmers take advantage of desperate workers and repetitively lower the wage, knowing these people have no other alternatives. Elsa cannot take it anymore. She is afraid as she has always been but decides to stand up for her fellow Americans who deserve to be paid fairly and live like an American.
“Sometimes a person had to stand up and say enough was enough…. But life is more than what happens to us, Elsa. We have choices to make.”
“It wasn’t the fear that mattered in life. It was the choices made when you were afraid. You were brave because of your fear, not in spite of it.”
She loses her life by standing up against the wealthy farmer but her friends and family remember her as the bravest woman alive.
“Think about the women who fought for the vote. They had to be scared, too, but they marched for change, even if it meant going to jail. And now we can vote. Sometimes the end is worth any sacrifice.”
I was stunned to find out that some Americans lived in such a dire situation not too long ago. It made me realize how many brave Americans mustered up the courage to fight against inequality in spite of fear which made today’s society that I take for granted.
To think of it, any breakthrough was only possible when people overcame the fear and took the grit to march for a change. After reading the book, I learned that I shall not be afraid to take a chance for a new change. Even if I fail, I hope I can celebrate the failure because it’s a token of my bravery, and I learned something new from the failure. Though the lesson from failure may not be clear and I may be heartbroken at the moment of failure, I may be able to connect the dots in the future to map out a beautiful picture when all the pieces of the puzzle come into the right place.