In A Cup of Dust Susie Finkbeiner has created a story and a main character that communicate so clearly the hardship, heartaches, and joys of a young girl in a small town in the middle of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.
Back when I was younger and the ranches were full of fat cattle, Daddy would take me to watch the cowboys drive the cattle from one stubbled pasture to the next. Not much grass grew even then, but the ranchers fed them the Russian thistles that would otherwise blow all around the streets.
Those days of cowboys and cattle were like magic to me. (p.42)
The novel gets off to a meandering start, as our ten year old narrator, Pearl Spence, wanders about and we are introduced to her family and friends. As daughters of the local sheriff, she and her older sister Beanie live an easier life than many others in the town of Red River, Oklahoma, but they still aid their mother in the daily task of trying to expel all of the dust back out of their home. Beanie, whose brain was affected at birth, tends to wander off and Pearl is the one to find and fetch her back while their Mama helps those who can’t afford a doctor and their grandmother Meemaw provides a lot of love, faith, and a bit of her own sass.
Ray had told me about Hoovervilles. Camps full of people who didn’t have any other place to rest their heads. Most of them were on their way west and needed somewhere to stop at for a day or so to get off the road. I’d heard that sometimes the folks held a square dance at the camps. And every night the kids got to sleep out under the stars.
I bet old Herbert Hoover liked having Camps named after him. (p.53)
The minute Pearl and her friend Ray watch hobos jump off a train, and one singles her out, a feeling of foreboding took over and I found myself clenching up mentally in anticipation of what she might experience or witness. And once those experiences and events happen, with misfortune stacked upon tragedy, Pearl’s statement that “Sorrow had a way of piling up on my heart” feels both poignant and true.
Pastor had told us over and over that the jackrabbits were a curse for our stubborn ways. Sure as the frogs and the bloody river were to the Pharaoh of Egypt, the dust was punishment for our black sin. We’d gotten the locust and darkness already. Punishment upon punishment. Plague stacked on top of itself. (p.44)
Alongside the dust, Hoovervilles, and President Roosevelt on the radio, Pearl’s narration brings all of the characters to life. From the grandfatherly mayor, to the ringmaster turned preacher, and ‘That Woman,’ these are characters that touch Pearl’s life, adding dimension and pathos to her story as she learns some hard truths about life and the choices those around her have made.
We never talked about it again.
A lot happened that year and into the next year never earned a discussion.
Mostly, it was because we found it all too hard to speak of. (p.121)
I’ve been thinking lately about what it is that holds such appeal for me in novels set in the 1930’s. Generally focusing on people experiencing the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, they are stories of faith, perseverance, and (pardon the pun) grit. In this particular case, it is also very much Pearl herself that drew me in and kept me reading. As hardships mount and life turns Pearl’s dreams into nightmares, I was touched by her simple faith and enduring spirit.
Pearl is engaging and endearing with a strong narrative voice, innocent and yet observant and bordering on precocious in some of her insights. And every time she sends someone a “look full of sass,” I can’t help but smile and think of my grandmothers, who would have been about the same age in 1934 and probably sent many such looks, though like Pearl, only out of the sight of their mothers.
It may seem early to make this statement, but I do think this novel will rank among my favorite reads for this year. Whether or not you are familiar with the times and events of the 1930’s, this is a novel that will pull you in and make you feel like dusting yourself off after. I highly recommend it, it has that best combination of heart-touching and heartbreaking that leaves me wanting to dive right into the next Pearl Spence novel, and then the next.
A Cup of Dust: a Novel of the Dust Bowl by Susie Finkbeiner (Pearl Spence novels, #1) | Kregel Publications, 2016 | paperback or ebook, 320 pages
This review refers to a paperback I purchased after it was recommended to me based on my enjoyment of Into the Free by Julie Cantrell (review), another novel I would highly recommend.
From the Back Cover:
Ten-year-old Pearl doesn’t understand a lot of things–why her sister’s brain doesn’t work right, why the preacher yells so much, why Jesus and the president seem to have forgotten all about Oklahoma. But she does know who she is: Pearl Spence, daughter of the esteemed town sheriff. Generous and always ready to help in a crisis, the Spences bring hope to this desolate town, and Pearl is proud of her family. She knows who she is, she knows she is loved, and even in unrelenting hardship, life feels secure. Not even the dust that sweeps incessantly across Red River can quench her hopes and dreams.
But someone else seems to know who she is, too, and he makes Pearl uneasy. From the moment the mysterious hobo steps off the train and stares at her with his cold blue eyes, Pearl’s secure world begins to unravel. How does Eddie know her name? Why does he seem to hover everywhere she turns? And why does he act like he knows something about her family that she doesn’t? Pearl is determined to avoid him, but Eddie is bent on forcing his way into her life and disrupting her family’s shaky tranquility. the more he badgers Pearl, the greater her confusion, until the storm within her rivals the swirling of dust and dirt without.