On History: Dustship Glory Review

By | Tuesday, October 18, 2016 Leave a Comment
How much do you know about the Dust Bowl? If you're like most people, probably almost nothing. Because it's rarely taught in school. Certainly not in depth. The reason why it's not taught is because A) the massive drought that started it was partially caused by climate change, and B) it was exasperated by the government spending years before encouraging farmers to basically till the soil into nothing. Neither of which are messages that very patriotic. Things may have changed somewhat in recent years with regards to how/what is taught about the Dust Bowl, but the unabashedly nationalistic (if not downright jingoistic) agenda that helps to indoctrinate students into blind patriotism without any critical thought is one of the bigger problems I have with the primary school system.

BUT! Elaine Will is here to help!

Elaine Will's most recent graphic novel, Dustship Glory, tells the story of Tom Sukanen, a Finnish farmer who moved to the United States and then Canada, trying to make his way in the world. He was a brilliant man but, between his temper and the drought that surrounded him, he had more than a few difficulties getting by. He eventually took upon the idea of building his own ship and setting sail, possibly back to Finland. His limited English and fanatical devotion to the idea, however, alienated him from the community, and he was eventually institutionalized.

Will's story is broader than Sukanen, though. He's certainly the primary focus, but she provides an almost surprising amount of background and context given that focus. The story starts, for example, with some local bullies trying to harass Sukanen while he's working on his half-completed hull. The seemingly simple exchange provides some context about the impact of the Dust Bowl and the practical concerns of people doing day-to-day farming. There's a lot like that peppered throughout the book -- we get a sense of what a dust storm was actually like, the everyday concerns farmers felt, the larger issues whole towns were dealing with, etc.

And yet it remains a personal story of Sukanen. While we don't quite get inside his head in the same way Will portrayed Jeremy in Look Straight Ahead, we still get a very good sense of Sukanen's driving motivators and how he sees and interprets the world around him. Completing his ship is his personal white whale, but he's enmeshed in a very different culture than Ahab was.

What's fascinating, too, and caused me to do something of a double-take at the start is that this is a true story. Sukanen was real farmer in the early 1900s, who dealt with several soul-crushing blows by building a ship in the middle of the Dust Bowl, roughly 700 miles from the Hudson Bay.

Will displays here the same mastery of comic storytelling that she showed us in Look Straight Ahead. Although it's a very different type of story, it's one that she tells expertly. Well worth picking up for her storytelling abilities, and you'll almost certainly learn a thing or two that you should have been, but weren't, taught in school as well. The book is available for $19.95 here.
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