Weather is the subject of dreary and banal small talk, right?
As I enter another hurricane season in my transplanted southern home, I can’t help but wonder if this is true. We get a mixture of vicarious terror and a shiver of schadenfreude joy from reading about disastrous weather. The other night as I drove to a book group, I was listening to Timothy Egan’s National Book Award winning Dust Bowl saga The Worst Hard Time in my car. Egan follows the history of dozens of people through the worst of the Dust Bowl years, explaining how human behavior created a weather disaster. The book is full of memorable characters and events, all made that much more intriguing by the fact that their stories are true.
As the narrator told the tale of Black Sunday–August 14, 1935–the day in which the worst dust storm ever obliterated the sky in large sections of Nebraska, Oklahoma, and the Texas panhandle, I was driving into the jaws of my own storm. Flashes of lightning seemed to point directly to the house where my group would be held. The fear, excitement, and anxiety that my own little storm created in me helped underline the terror, dread, and mental instability that must have been experienced by the people who suffered through five years of no crops, no money, depression, and illness created by the dust-filled air. As I listened to the tale of a family who drove through drifting dunes, choking dirt, and engine-killing static in Model A Fords so that they could bury a grandmother and daughter who died from dust pneumonia on the same day, only to be turned back by a vicious wall of dirt, I thought about how much I took the environment for granted. Bad weather is a humbling experience.
The Worst Hard Time would make a great book group choice for the hot and stormy months of late summer. Read it with Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath to understand both what the “Okies” were fleeing and what they faced when they got to California. Try comparing it with the modern panhandle depicted in Annie Proulx’s That Old Ace in the Hole. Mix it with other wonderful stormy reading: Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm, David Laskin’s The Children’s Blizzard, or Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, for instance. Or try a book about how contemporary policy and practice are changing weather patterns such as Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers or Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe. You might even be inspired to read more about Franlin Delano Roosevelt and his responses to the Dust Bowl and Great Depression in books like FDR by Jean Edward Smith or Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time.
There are dozens of approaches to this material, all prime ground for discussion. Maybe there’s a good reason after all, why so many people talk about the weather.