I’ve written a novel that follows a young woman’s struggle to find her place in life. It takes place after the Roaring Twenties blinkers into the long twilight of the Great Depression. An alliteration of that period could be debt, drought, disappointment, desperation, and despair.
I grew up in the region where most of my story takes place, the Oklahoma Panhandle. A severe drought, lasting several years, withered the Great Plains at that time. Reckless farming practices of previous years had stripped the region of the grasslands which once protected the soil. Without moisture or cover crops, never-ending windstorms whipped across the prairie to create the ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl. Hundreds of thousands of people, desperate to escape the poverty and joblessness of the plains and southeastern states, migrated west. A great number of those identified as being from Oklahoma were actually from states to the east. Vehicle registration enforcement in many of those states was lax but Oklahoma cops stopped vehicles without a tag, subsidizing the state treasury. For the privilege of crossing Oklahoma en route to the golden west, many travelers from the Carolinas, Tennessee, etc., were tagged as Okies.
Most were poor whites, hoping to find a better life. Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, made the term “Okie” familiar nationwide. Some of those who stayed and lived through the Dust Bowl saw the Okie migrants as quitters; but few native Oklahomans, me included, do not have a relative who made the trip down Route 66. Most Oklahomans are proud of their Okie kin who made good in California. In fact, my half-brother was a tool pusher on a drilling rig off the Santa Barbara coast.
When I made my own exodus in 1968, some of the local Oregon folks referred to ramshackle settlements as Okie towns. Coincidentally, Oklahoma Governor Dewey Bartlett had just created a program to develop Okie pride. Thinking back, it seems a bit ridiculous but group identity partly defines who we are. If I can’t own my roots, I can’t be completely honest with people.
I was proud of my Okie label. The name represented grit and perseverance; being a real survivor. I got some strange looks and a few comments when people saw my little brass Okie pin but I wore it as a badge of honor. For those who kept it up, I’d give them Will Rogers’ assessment: “When the Okies left Oklahoma to go to California, it raised the average IQ of both states.” Then we’d both laugh. Usually.
I’d like to hear from those of you who remember family stories or who have your own memories of that corroded time. What lessons could we learn from those folk to apply to our world, to the struggles and challenges that wait outside our front doors–and inside, where we relate to those closest to us?