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Review: "Like Dust, I Rise" by Ginny Rorby - Strongly Recommend (1 Viewer)


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Like Dust, I Rise (Author: Ginny Rorby)
Book Review by Eric H. Bowen

Like Dust, I Rise is a new novel from established Young Adult/Middle Grade author Ginny Rorby. Unlike the colorful covers of her other youth books such as Hurt Go Happy and Lost in the River of Grass, the cover picture we’re greeted with is a somber black & white image of a Depression-era girl in the dusty bedroom of a ramshackle New Mexico home. It’s appropriate, because this story is dark. Never gratuitously ugly, but dark.

The story is told through the eyes of Winona Williams, a precocious ten year old in 1928 who dreams of someday becoming a pilot like her heroine, Amelia Earhart. But she lives a meager existence in a poor neighborhood behind the Chicago stockyards, and her father Owen comes home to their boarding house every night spotted with blood and smelling of pig guts. “Papa hates his work and I hate it for him. He’s been talking about leaving Chicago since Owie was born three and a half years ago. He was a farrier in the Great War, but says there are now so many automobiles in Chicago, the only person left with a horse to shoe is the ragman.” But Owen hears stories of an enormous ranch on the Great Plains of Texas which might yet be able to use his skills. Buying a well-used Conestoga wagon and four old horses bound for the glue factory he sets off with his wife’s elegant furniture, relics of a ‘comfortable’ life years ago, for the XIT ranch in the Texas panhandle. Two of the horses die on the way, but he and the furniture-laden wagon make it to Dalhart, Texas after a six-month trek.

Only to find that the XIT is no more; it has been broken up and sold off. But Owen finds a situation where he can provide labor for an elderly farmer named Noel Andersen who has no heir and no wife, and receive clear title to the 640 acre farm upon Noel’s death. He wires to his wife and children in Chicago to come by train and join him. Upon hearing the details of the arrangement his wife bursts into tears, exclaiming that they will be no better than sharecroppers. She’s further embittered when she first sees their new “home”...a dusty, sod-covered, one-room dugout. “As my eyes adjust to the dimness, it becomes clear why it’s called a dugout. The room has been hollowed out of a hill.... The only light comes from the window in the sod wall. The earth floor is swept to a hard, smooth finish. Beams laid from wall to wall support the peaked board roof....” Still the first year goes well enough; a real home is built and the farm produces a good crop of winter wheat which Owen and Noel are able to harvest and bring to market before prices begin to collapse. Owen is all set to take out a mortgage to expand their operation, but Noel wisely vetoes the proposal.

For the fat harvest of 1929 is followed in short order by the stock market crash, the Depression...and the Dust Bowl. Ms. Rorby draws on actual journal accounts of settlers who lived through that time to bring the string of natural disasters to life with vivid descriptions: Blizzards, cyclones, and finally the dust storms severe enough to bury man, beast, and even vehicles alive. “A towering cloud rolls toward us from the west. My heart thrills. Rain! But the cloud is a strange brownish yellow color, and it’s moving faster than any storm I’ve ever seen....Sam [her horse] screams in fear and races across the field toward home, steam blasting from his nostrils. I hear Gracie wailing....The earth looks like it’s crumbling away behind us faster than Sam can run. I face forward, but can’t see where we’re headed. I hope Sam finds the gate....” From 1933 to 1938 there is virtually no rain received in the Panhandle of Texas; it’s been called “the worst environmental disaster in the United States.” Will Winona be able to keep her dreams of ever becoming a pilot alive?

In reading this book, I was struck with comparisons to two great classics of literature which I would encourage all young people to be familiar with: Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Like Dust, I Rise echoes the former in its opening chapters and segues to become more like the latter as the years pass on. I would hesitate to recommend this book to pre-teens; its content is as gritty as its milieu. It is an unvarnished look at farm life during hard times in the years before electricity and modern conveniences. Disasters hit. People die. Beloved animals die. Desperate “Okies” attempt to rob the farmhouse when they believe no one is home. Members of the family grow sick and die. And the family unit itself is strained to the point of separation, in the end.

Still, these are difficult but real truths which real people endured, and the book is honest and forthright about them all. And so I would strongly recommend this book for teenagers and young adults who want to make a connection with the experiences of a generation who endured so much and by now has almost completely passed from this earth. Although those with arachnophobia might want to skip chapter 33!

A final note: I received an advance copy of this book in consideration of assisting the author with research about train travel in 1929. However, there was no inducement or expectation of providing a review and neither the author nor publisher (Black Rock Correction: Black Rose. Sorry!) has provided any incentive or compensation in exchange for my review.

TL;DR: It’s good. Read it.
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