Blue Willow and the Dust Bowl

I have read two award-winning novels about the 1930s Dust Bowl. One was John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which is an important book, but not one that left me with pleasant memories.

The other novel is the Newberry Honor winner Blue Willow, by Doris Gates, which was first published in 1940, and is still in print. I’m not sure how many times I’ve read Blue Willow, but the story still holds my interest.

Ten-year-old Janey Larkin is too small for her age, due to poor diet and a difficult life. She and her father and step-mother are always on the move across the drought-stricken San Joaquin Valley of California, as her father searches for a week or two of migrant work wherever he can find it. Janey doesn’t try to make friends, or become interested in where they are staying, for it’s easier to pack up and leave when there are no newly-made attachments in her life.

At times Janey gets short stretches of formal education in camp schools set up for the children of migrant workers, but most of her schooling comes from her father’s insistence that she read two pages a day from the Bible – the family’s only book.

Janey hadn’t always traveled the country in the family’s battered car. Half a lifetime ago, before her birth mother died, there had been a home in Texas. She could barely remember a time of happiness, when she didn’t always have to do without. The Larkins still had a remnant of that fine home – packed away in a suitcase was a blue willow plate that had belonged to Janey’s great-great grandmother before being given to her mother.

Not only was the plate the only attractive thing the Larkins owned, but it represented to Janey her long-ago lost home, plus the impossible wish to someday find another home, where her family could stay as long as they wanted to, and not just as long as they can.

The Larkins move into a weather-beaten shack, across the road from a larger and sturdier shack, where the Romero family has lived for an entire year.

Mr. Larkin finds steady work, first helping with irrigating, and then picking cotton. And Janey makes friends with her young neighbor, Lupe Romero, despite Lupe’s inability to grasp why the treasured blue willow plate meant so much to lonely and deprived Janey.

As the Larkins live in one place for three months Janey grew to know the importance of having a friend. And she becomes attached to the countryside around her. A mile from the shack was a river where willow trees grew, and there was a small footbridge, which she could imagine was like the scene on the willow plate. Janey began to hope that they could stay on permanently, and she could attend a “real” school, and not just a camp school where students came and went as their families traveled the country.

The only bad thing during Mr. Larkin’s prolonged spell of work was the occasional appearance of Bounce Reyburn, the mean-spirited man who collected rent for the shack, and claimed the money went to his employer, Mr. Anderson, who owned the building.

One day, when her family went to the river to fish, Janey walked over the footbridge and wandered into the dooryard of Mr. Anderson, who turned out to be a kind and friendly man. Janey wanted to confide in him, but a threatening look from Bounce warned Janey that Mr. Anderson wasn’t to be told about anything that happened between Bounce and the Larkins.

Mr. Larkin’s work finally ends, just as Mrs. Larkin comes down with pneumonia. She is too sick to travel, but there is no money for the rent, so the blue willow plate is given as payment.

When Mr. Larkin decides his wife is well enough for the family to move where work will be available Janey is determined to see her beloved blue willow plate one final time. This sets off a series of events that ultimately leads to a happy ending.

Blue Willow is a children’s novel, so the tension and drama may come off as being rather mild for an adult read, but I consider it one of my “safe” books. I can spend a few hours reliving the Larkins’ troubles, knowing all will come out well in the end.

I don’t recall if it was during my first reading that I noted the incongruity of blue-eyed, towheaded Janey having a father who was a migrant worker, while Lupe Romero’s father had steady permanent work, which made his family more prosperous than the Larkins. (Author Doris Gates writes that the Romeros were Mexicans, and I wonder how many other circa-1940 children’s books showed a non-white family in a positive light.)

If you want to get a sense of the struggles migrant workers faced during the Dust Bowl – and if you’d like a believable happy ending – I’d recommend reading Doris Gates’ Blue Willow. It has a permanent place in my collection of Bookshelf Companions.

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