A woman writing about migration, she sets her representation of the experience in domestic terms -- as a challenge to creating a sustainable family and community -- and thus departs from the more politicized narratives. They are making some headway until the dust storms start. Milt and Julia are among them. Milt finds someone who will trade a car for a small plot of his land and the family sets off. We imagine ourselves taken into their crowded tents and find ourselves bumping into beds and boxes and seating ourselves around an old table for meals while the overflow sits on beds with plates in laps.
At one time Milt and Julia, their two girls, Mrs Starwood and her three children and Frieda share a small one room house because their income requires they do so in order to meet expenses. They feel dehumanized. In September the winter wheat was planted. Milt and the old man rose every morning at daybreak. Julia was up before them, building the fire and getting the coffee and oatmeal ready. While they were eating the oatmeal, she fried them each two eggs and gave them thick pieces of the bread she baked one day in the week.
There was butter, but not to be used generously or it would not last until the next churning. In the dugout it was still dark, and the men ate by lamplight. When they came up into the yard, the sharp high air of western autumn came into their noses, penetrated their clothes, made them go about their chores briskly. Each morning they felt renewed in themselves, and a clear unknown excitement sprang up in them with the sense of the new season. They looked at the land they had planted the day before, and the land they would plant this day, and they felt a sense of possession growing in them for the piece of earth that was theirs.
But these unformed thoughts never came to words. The men spoke of the wheat, of the weather they needed. A freeze. Snow through the winter, to lie on the fields, to sink into the ground below the roots so the young plants could withstand the dry summer days. A little spring rain.
No hail. No hot winds.
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No year would be as certain and perfect as this, but every season the dryland farmers hoped for one thing, feared another, and breathed again in relief if the crop was still safe. They got up at daybreak and went to bed at dark. The days passed like this, each one so much alike that time broke only at the seasons.
The wheat came up and lay like a green carpet over the level prairies. Where miles of short curled buffalo grass separated the farms, the land was gray and dry.
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Sunday, Milt and the old man walked over their field, as every other farmer did on that day, watching the new leaves grow, kicking the dry clods apart. Every morning, every night, they looked at the sky to see the coming weather. Then the long cold winter set in, and the wheat acres lay growing under the snow. When the field was uncovered the horses and cows grazed on the wheat. Late snow melted under the tepid spring sun, the rutted byroads held muddy brown water for days, and the yard was wrinkled deep with wagon tracks and pocked by dog paws and animal hooves.
The pure white world of winter-with its noble stillness, its grand and awing beauty, its mighty storms-slipped deftly into a wild and windy spring. Moisture blackened the earth deeply beneath tender green wheat that leaned far over under a lashing wind. The tracked yard hardened into a mask.
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The old man walking against the wind saw the chickens scratch determinedly on the drying crust of earth, trying to reach the worms below. He watched them brace themselves as their feathers blew backwards, and he spoke softly to himself, "When it comes in like a lion, it goes out like a lamb. Then the gusty spring passed into the dry hot days of summer, the wind died into a breeze save for the occasional sandstorm that swept across the plains. The wheat was strong and growing tall. Milt and the old man tended it, walked through it, watched the sky for rain, and waited.
Milt was afraid of hot winds. Some days the fear was real and close, when here and there in the field the leaves burned crisp and pale. Great white clouds lay in a clear blue sky and at night they drifted away.
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Far off, low on the horizon, lightning winked with promise from the dark banks. Sometimes a curtain of rain spread nearer and hope flew into their talk and patience returned. Then suddenly and swiftly when hope was almost gone, clouds blackened the sky, churning and threatening, riding closer on a slight rising wind, perfumed with the fresh sweetness of rain.
The men stopped their work and stood in the yard watching for signs of wind or hail. Heat lightning flashed wide and harmless, receded, and the quick forked bolts snapped brilliant and close.
Mountainous thunder roiled through the heavens seeming to shake the earth. An ominous quiet cupped a hollow over them. In the strange electric light, objects miles away appeared in dreamlike clarity. Brennermann's tall white house looked like a staid woman in a long white dress. Starwood's simple farmhouse sat clear and bright like a toy that could be held in the hand.
Each post in the long fences binding the farms stood out in unreal definition. The dark swooped down like a hawk in the rising crescendo of the storm, and the rain broke and crashed through the charged air, down upon dry and waiting fields. It came down in a heavy drenching flood, and the storm was over. Julia and the little girls, Milt, and the old man stood in the yard after the rain began, then seeing it would be a steady rain, they went into the house, listening happily to the even thudding on the roof.
Milt went out often, to look at the clouds and sniff the air for hail, and contented at last with the rain he went to the barn to feed the horses, feeling almost giddy with relief.
The violence and magnificence of storms came again and again during the hot summer months, but when the wheat was gold ripe with very little burned, waving lazily in a warm wind, the heads fat and whole, Milt arranged for the Brownell boys to help him cut and thresh the grain. They came with their tractor, combine, and truck. Milt hauled the grain away from the combine and when he was back, the bin was full again.
He looked at the yellow wheat and he felt good. For days the lusty rhythm of the machines hummed over their acres, and the combine laid the field bare to gold stubble and wide lonely reaches again. This was a good harvest. One or two of the late harvesters were hailed out, but for most the crops were saved. Nothing could keep these new wheat farmers from planting wheat.
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The big wheat farmers near the state line had long been eyed with envy. Now these smaller farmers tried the crop and succeeded. They tended their row crops, the feed for their stock, but wheat was their crop. They never tired of speculating what they would get the next year and the next, weather willing, prices steady.
The old man paid his taxes. Milt gave Julia money for some clothes for winter-coats, underwear, shoes, stockings. They paid the grocery bill. They gave themselves a few "feasts," and afterward life lapsed back into the same pattern, with little money left over until next harvest.
There was not enough that year, or the next, to plant the land Milt had bought fourteen miles away. It lay unfenced and unproductive, eating up taxes. The old man wanted him to sell, but raw land would not bring much, and Milt was sure someday he would improve the place and farm it. In the meantime, a little pasture rent helped pay the tax.
The sound of a motor could be heard in the late summer dusk long before it reached the half-mile stretch of fence along the Dunne farm. The little girls were standing on a box at the window watching the truck. It seemed like a friend, and they felt excited and warm in their hearts for this noisy machine bumping along the road.