Thursday, 2 April 2015

Kate Reviews: Dirt

Dirt by S.L. Dwyer
Review by Kate Martyn

The Dust Bowl of 1930-40 is as much a defining event of American history in its way as the Great Depression. A frenzy of clearing and cultivating the land in the early twentieth century was brought to an abrupt halt by ten years of drought. Three-quarters of the United States was affected to varying degree. In excess of two million families left the farming area of Oklahoma where Dirt is set. The unrelenting drought slowly desiccated the land and wore down its inhabitants, until vast swathes were left bereft of people, vegetation and topsoil. In this unprecedented ecological disaster, great dust storms swept over the increasingly barren landscape and dirt was everywhere, an inescapable facet of daily existence in these hard times. 

Dirt is a recipient of
the B.R.A.G. Medallion
The sheer size and scope of the disaster is unimaginable. As is often the case, small human stories have a power to move the heart that statistics and percentages just do not. Thus it is through the eyes of a lad barely into his teens that we are exposed to the stark reality of deprivation and want in the midst of the drought. Based on the personal memories of the author’s father, the story takes place in Bosen Creek in Texas County, the central of three counties on the Oklahoma panhandle.

Hank and Rebecca Larkin are just one couple who have struggled for years with the drought, dwindling crops and the shrinking township on which they depend. They finally succumb to despair, hoping that their children Samuel and Rebecca will at least have some chance of survival in state care. 

Thirteen-year-old Sammy struggles to understand and forgive his parents’ actions. He is determined to keep himself and his seven-year-old sister Birdie together, so must prevent anyone from discovering that they are alone on their farm. Sammy takes on an adult’s task that is way beyond him, keeping them fed by growing a few vegetables and doing odd jobs in return for food. It seems the few families left are so hard-pressed that no-one is troubled by the absence of the Larkin parents. A white lie here and there satisfies the few cursory enquiries that Sammy is occasionally faced with.

The children are befriended by a stray dog they name Dirt and later joined by another slightly older orphan girl, Louella. Sammy and Louella are managing to hold things together surprisingly well when a malignant old drifter lights upon the vulnerable group. Life becomes even more dangerous for the children, stalked by constant fear. 

The sheer desperation of a hand-to-mouth existence comes through on every page, a powerful evocation of the grinding daily existence. Despite the wide-open spaces, the smallness of Sammy’s mental world, centred on the next day’s survival, is intensely claustrophobic.

The desolate landscape is hauntingly evoked. The opening lines of the preface set the scene of depressing, all-pervasive wind, heat, dust and dirt: "Undulating oceans of gritty land resembled a foreign landscape, bleak and desolate, constantly changing. Homes became skeletal remains, framed by twisted fencing and gnarled trees." Terrifying storms sweep across the land at intervals, “moving. . . [like]. . . hungry beast[s] sucking up the land. . . churning and growing."

The unequal challenge of the children against the elements is powerfully evoked with great immediacy:

Caught in the vortex of a monster blow, the wind whipped at the corner of the door lifting Sammy off his feet and into the air. He screamed as he hung in the air, inches off the steps. His feet kicked trying to find a spot to latch onto. . . Birdie jumped up and grabbed Sammy’s feet. Her added weight was just enough to allow Sammy’s feet to touch the stone steps again. Once the door closed he slammed the bolt through and dropped to the floor.

A dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas, 1935
Courtesy U.S. Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The children are affectingly portrayed, simple and uneducated but with a gritty determination, a good deal of native courage, and a touching loyalty to each other and to the upright way they were obviously brought up by their parents. Their childish thought processes and the adult world represented through the filter of childhood are convincingly managed throughout. The reader cares very much about what happens to them, feeling in turn horrified, sad, admiring and apprehensive as the story unfolds. 

An overarching theme of loneliness and despair exacerbated by an uncaring community is poignantly integrated into the story right from its opening lines. Even the town sheriff is so weighed down by despair that the story is in its final stages before he goes to check that all is well at the Larkin homestead.

The cover is cleanly produced and it stark simplicity fits well with the grittiness of the story. A short but informative preface gives historical background that I found very useful for context. There is a certain naïveté in the writing style, and the point of view occasionally meanders between characters in a slightly unorthodox fashion. However, I think this ultimately works in the story’s favour, giving an unsophisticated feel to the narration and a flavour of a slower, simpler time. When the action builds to a climax, the reader is drawn along into the breathless fear and bewilderment of the children.

I am not hugely conversant with American history, but the research seemed thorough, and the period details were nicely integrated, adding to the authentic ring of the story. Ultimately it is an unpretentious, heartfelt and satisfying story of a lesser-known aspect of the difficult years between 1930 and 1940. It drew me in and had me turning the pages, wanting very much to know how the dilemmas facing these brave children would be resolved.

It was a most poignant touch that the stray dog, named Dirt by Birdie, brought the children solace and protection, when previously the all-pervading dirt had brought nothing but tragedy and despair. This is emblematic of the redemptive quality of the ending. Amid the harshness there is still love and hope in unexpected places, and I found myself hoping that was sufficient to carry the children through to better times.



Of herself, author S.L. Dwyer writes…

Born in Connecticut, raised in Florida, and lived all over this great country. My residences almost match my careers. I began as a nurse and went back to school for an engineering degree. Then on to finance and technology. Diverse, yes. Satisfying, no. My real love was writing. I have always immersed myself in books from a very young age. Traveled to exotic locales and fought for the good side in the land of words written by those who crafted a story that enthralled and entertained.

I don't write in any particular genre.When I discover a story tumbling around in my head, whatever the genre, I write it. Right now I am working on a young adult trilogy and book one will be out soon.

I couldn't imagine doing anything else besides writing - books are magic. The world of fiction is so much more exciting than anything you could imagine in everyday life.

You can also find S.L. Dwyer at her website.


Kate Martyn is the author of The King's Gift, also available at Amazon, and may be found at her blog, located here. If you would like The Review to feature your book, please see our submissions tab above.


  1. This sounds like a book I need to read!

  2. I learned about The Dust bowl of America at school, and it came across as just bald facts. This review sounds like Dwyer's novel had put meat on the bones of the stark facts of history. I would live to read this book.

  3. A superb review from Kate. Brilliant! I really want to read the book. Gimme gimme gimme! That.Is. All.