Whenever I read historical fiction set in the Dust Bowl area and in the Great Depression years, I judge that book against several things: John Steinbeck's GRAPES OF WRATH, Dorothea Lange's iconic photographs, the recent PBS/Ken Burn's television series, and personal stories of my father's childhood in Depression-era Wisconsin. From the first pages of her first novel, A CUP OF DUST, I felt that Susie Finkbeiner was authentically recreating a Dust Bowl era Oklahoma town and its people. I was almost through the 300+ page novel, when I flipped to the final author's notes and read that Finkbeiner herself gauges any Dust Bowl information against Steinbeck, Lange, and Burns. Perhaps that is why the mix of setting and character meshed so well in her book.
Ten year old Pearl Spence's family is surviving the Depression better than most. Her father, the town's sheriff receives a regular paycheck, although quite small, and her mother wisely rations it throughout the month so that she can quietly and sometimes anonymously be generous to neighbors with less. Pearl's precious Meemaw lives with the family, and between her and Pearl's mom, Pearl is being taught how to act like a lady, especially a Christian one. Like most ten year old's, Pearl is navigating that area between a child's world of innocence and an adult's world of responsibility. Sometimes she hears things she does not quite understand and the not understanding weighs heavily on her. As for responsibilities, Pearl's greatest one is keeping track of her older sister Beanie, who is mentally slow and a definite wanderer. There is a special connection between Pearl and her sheriff father. Even quieter than Atticus in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Sheriff Spence is both Pearl's protector, hero, and her moral compass.
If you've ever seen Dorothea Lange's photos of Depression era mothers and children, you will have no problem imagining Mrs. Jones and her son Ray. They live in a soddy not too far from the Pence's and Ray is Pearl's best friend, while Mrs. Jones relies on doing the Spence's laundry for the family's meager income. With each beating from her broken, useless husband, every sand-filled cough from her infant daughter and every inch of growth on Ray's frail frame, Mrs. Jones becomes more and more discouraged until no hope remains. Their's is a story where you wished the author did not need to be so authentic. Young Pearl (and everyone else for that matter) witnesses the abuse within the Jones's soddy, but even the sheriff feels that nothing can be done to intervene in "a man's home," so the family is quietly helped by Mrs. Pence's charity, but by nothing else.
I believe if this novel has simply been a tale of the Spence's survival during the Depression, it would have offered plenty -- the fight against death of their town by desertion, the endless dust storms and cleaning, the fight against the jackrabbits, the slaughtering of the cattle, and so on. But A CUP OF DUST offers more -- a stranger who for some reason seems to know Pearl's name and whose very presence frightens the little girl. When others begin to accept him, and when even her mother and father begin to trust Eddie, Pearl cannot understand why. As Pearl's dreams turn into nightmares and Eddie seems to be at the center of all of them, Pearl must find a way to make her family understand her fears. Finkbeiner has used her lifelong fascination with the Dust Bowl to write a strong novel. I hope she has many more stories left to tell. If you want to learn more about Susie Finkbeiner's writing checkout her blog or her website. I received a copy of this title from Kregel Publications for review purposes. All views are mine.