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With drought, life imitates art, or is it the reverse?

I thought I had died and gone to heaven, but it was only Powell's Books. Powell's, world-famous at least among bookworms, is four floors of new and used books in Portland, Ore., where I was recently visiting a daughter. It claims to be the larges...

I thought I had died and gone to heaven, but it was only Powell's Books.

Powell's, world-famous at least among bookworms, is four floors of new and used books in Portland, Ore., where I was recently visiting a daughter.

It claims to be the largest independent bookstore in the world, occupying an entire square block in downtown Portland. Its estimated one million volumes spill over 77,000 square feet.

There's even a rare book room, which includes musty old volumes about martyrs and maps and first editions by Ernest Hemingway. As I scanned the shelves looking for nothing in particular, my eyes fell on Elmer Kelton's "The Time It Never Rained,'' a compelling novel about an extended drought in Texas and the steps ranchers were forced to take to survive.

It was one of my dad's favorites. He knew all about drought, starting in 1931 when he was 16. By the time the Dirty '30s and the Dust Bowl had ended in 1939, he was 24 and had witnessed the worst natural and economic conditions this country would experience, though he had no way of knowing it at the time. What he did know painfully well was what a lack of rain could do to a ranching and farming operation in South Dakota, especially Lyman County, where rainfall, even today, is elusive and unpredictable.

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This eight years of what has been described by some as a "living hell" affected him - and his generation - in a way those who came later could not fully understand. They coped with an adversity that challenges description, though as I was growing up I often heard my parents and grandparents recount the drifts of dirt covering fence lines, the dust filtering into every crevice and cranny in the home near Reliance, and the heartrending stories of those who lost their land.

Both sides of my family survived, but traveled to California in coming years to visit friends who had decided that there were better ways to make a living.

Was it by mere chance, then, that I spotted the Kelton book on the shelf or was it somehow connected to my subconscious, which never leaves home and was thinking about South Dakota and the drought?

Kelton's book tells about what ranchers and farmers in South Dakota are facing today: With crops burning up, leaving livestock with little to eat, the dilemma is to sell the herd or buy expensive feed, either in the form of hay or in rented pasture -- if there is any available.

The central figure in "The Time It Never Rained" is a crusty, unbending old rancher named Charlie Flagg. Like my dad, he knew about hard times.

From the book's prologue: "No one expected another drought like that of '33. And the really big dries like 1918 came once in a lifetime. But why worry? they said. It would rain this fall. It always had. But it didn't. And many a boy would become a man before the land was green again."

Ranchers in the novel, like those in South Dakota, are forced to make adjustments, some of them drastic. For Charlie, the answer in part was sheep, which co-existed just fine with cattle. Somewhere in the book, Charlie coined the phrase that ranchers raised cattle for respectability and sheep for a living. As the drought rolled on year after year, ranchers were forced to burn the thorns off the prickly pear so the livestock could chew the pulpy green leaves.

The drought would last seven years - in that respect it was similar to the actual 1930s - but Kelton, a Texan by birth, certainly knew all too well the five-year drought that struck Texas and extended up into the Midwest in the 1950s. His book is fiction but based in fact.

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Flagg is not unlike a handful of ranchers I've known: fiercely independent and cantankerous, but also the first to pull his combine into a neighbor's wheat field when trouble struck.

On a whim, I contacted Elmer Kelton and told him I had discovered a first edition of "The Time It Never Rained" while in Portland and that I intended to re-read it. I was pleasantly surprised that he answered.

"Sorry about South Dakota's drought," he wrote back on Thursday. "We're having one too. I am not sure but what it is the same old drought as before, punctuated by occasional short periods of relief."

Sometimes -- and this summer is one of them -- it feels like that in South Dakota, too.

nhamiel@mitchellrepublic.com

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