Friday, March 27, 2009

Nonfiction Mojo

The Worst Hard Time - Timothy Egan. Egan explores the hardships of the Dust Bowl, which ravaged the plains states for nearly the entire 1930s and looks into the reasons behind its severity. The final nail in the coffin seems to have been World War I, during which time the government pressed farmers to plant and harvest as much wheat as possible. This resulted in the tearing-up of miles and miles of sod that was never really meant to be more than grazing land for cattle. When several seasons of drought came, along with some high winds, all of that topsoil became airborne for years and years. The dust storms nearly killed some of the towns on the plains, and did kill many of their inhabitants. Men, women and children contracted "dust lung", something akin to the "black lung" coal miners are prey to. Dust lung seems as if it was the more insidious of the two, felling its victims in a small span of years, and in the case of babies, months. According to Egan, one storm was so horrible that Americans as far away as New York were plagued by the black dust and Woody Guthrie was sure that it was the end of the world and got the inspiration for his song "So Long, It's Been Good To Know You".

Since my father was stationed in Oklahoma quite a bit during my childhood, I encountered the occasional dust storm (they always seemed to hit while I was walking home from school or the bus stop). Even after all this time, I still remember the choking feeling, the sting of the flying dirt against the unprotected parts of my body and face, and the gritty feeling in my teeth and the black snot that lingered well into the next day. To a lesser extent, there is a yellow dust here in Korea that blows down from China during the spring months. The air turns a sickly yellow and there's an unpleasant powdery dust that clings to everything. These scattered occurrences are memorable, but hardly more than annoyances when weighed against what those in the Dust Bowl went through. I can't imagine going through the same thing all day, every day, year after year.

Timothy Egan got out there and interviewed some of the old-timers that lived through this ordeal. The interviews, combined with his excellent research and his clear reporting style make for compelling reading. His prose is so evocative, I felt thirsty for days, no matter how much water I drank.

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase For Lincoln's Killer - James L. Swanson. Tautly written account of the assassination, which begins with Lincoln's second inauguration and Lee's surrender and the subsequent celebrations that broke out in Washington, D.C. All of these things seemed to push John Wilkes Booth (who had already plotted an unsuccessful kidnapping attempt) to grab his knife and Derringer and head to Ford's Theatre that fateful night. Before doing so, he dispatched two of his friends to assassinate Vice-President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. The attempt on Seward's life was nearly successful but the third conspirator lost his nerve and fled, never confronting Johnson. Both of these conspirators, including a third, David Herold, who traveled with Booth through the whole manhunt but finally gave himself up at Garrett's Farm, were executed by hanging a short time later.

Swanson expertly cuts back and forth in this series of events, giving the reader a sense of immediacy. I was so engrossed that I began talking to the people in the narrative. When Booth complained during his time on the run that he was forced to live outside in the cold and that all doors were closed to him, I exclaimed aloud, "You brought it on yourself!" Dr. Mudd's continued aid to Booth and his subsequent weak lies to try and save his skin made me groan repeatedly. Swanson examines Mudd in the harshest light and is emphatic that the legend that has grown up around Mudd is wrong -- Mudd wasn't just a poor guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, as his family has been trying to establish for over a century. Thomas Cook, a shrewd former blockade runner who was the most responsible for confounding those who were searching for Booth was to be somewhat grudgingly admired for his resourcefulness, but I was half-scared, half-hoping that Cook would end up being the main guest at his own necktie party.

Manhunt is as engrossing as a novel. I recommend it without reservation, and also encourage you to consider it as a possible upcoming Father's Day gift. Will this book be made into a movie? I hope so -- I think it would be an excellent one.


Thoughts of Joy said...

Oh yes . . . The Manhunt. Thanks for the reminder. :)

Bybee said...

It's one book that is definitely not to be missed!

jenclair said...

More for my list! The Worst Hard Time especially calls to me.

Thoughts of Joy said...

You got to my post before I made it back here! So, you already know I loved The Manhunt. I had it on my iPod, but never made it a priority. Thanks for the boost. :)