"The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl," by Timothy Egan
Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006, $14.95
It measured 1,800 miles wide and weighed 350 million tons. Quadrillions of particles, most smaller than the period at the end of this sentence, formed its bulk. Headlights and streetlamps shone into, though often not through, it. "From Governors Island" at New York City, writes Timothy Egan, "visibility was so bad a person could not see the boats just beyond the shore. Baseball players said they had trouble tracking fly balls."
This dust storm, asphyxiating the Eastern Seaboard the week of May 9, 1934, wasn't the only such raised from the Midwest, from overfarming, sod-ripping, the devastation of American hubris cooled off only insignificantly from Manifest Destiny. But it itched the powers that be, choked New York throats and infested our national brain trust: "Dust fell on the National Mall and seeped into the White House, where President Roosevelt was discussing plans for drought relief." Jump-started, the administration looked heavenward with sandblasted eyes, fearing burial beneath an airborne loam rivaling Egypt's Valley of the Kings and its entombed pharaohs. Shock. But dried-up, blown-away news to the folks at this exceptionally large, blasted heath of a Ground Zero.
Egan, a longtime Seattle resident, won a Pulitzer but writes like he didn't. Weaving webs of family and fortune, he populates Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles with the Whites of Dalhart, the Osteens of Baca County, the Shaws fitting in any which way they can (the wife takes a schoolhouse job for no salary; the husband dreams of opening a funeral home), then breaks their livelihoods, their futures and their trust. Their spirit survives, albeit cracked, gritty film over its interior. American indominability covers and sometimes chokes our national psyche, even if it took the British Churchill, in the next conventional World War, to say "we shall never surrender." "The Worst Hard Time" lays out, in a language anyone should understand, how arrogance hands us our head and extracts double overtime from our stalwart heart.
"James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon," by Julie Phillips
St. Martin's Press, 2006, $27.95
Alice B. Sheldon's mother, the now-forgotten but once-feted author Mary Hastings Bradley, once posed for a publicity portrait "in an evening dress, seated on the skin of a tiger she had shot herself." Witty, sly, equally at home at a formal dinner or on safari in what was then blithely called Darkest Africa, she proved almost impossibly protean for her own daughter to assimilate.
Alice B. Sheldon, hauled by tribesmen through torrid jungle, guarded by her mother's rifle if she had to step into bush to answer nature's call, scraped her flattened self-esteem together through great effort and crying. "I couldn't count the times," wrote Alice later, "I was patted on the head and told, 'Little girl, if you're ever as good-capable-warm-hearted-plucky-beautiful-witty-(name ten) as your mother, you'll be lucky." Alice B. Sheldon resolved to make her own luck and shape the clay of her own personas. Perhaps in unacknowledged retribution against the suffocating female aura of childhood, she selected a wittier, slyer yet more extreme duality. She became a man.
From the '60s to the '80s, a writer called James Tiptree Jr. wowed progressive science-fiction fans with bold but sensitively layered tales featuring folks, some human, some less so, imperiled in time, space and identity. He earned great praise for his humane, insightful inquiries into women's issues, paralleling the rise of feminism. He remained, though, an insightful male, no masquerade detected. The SF author Joanna Russ, a professor at the University of Washington, wrote Tiptree how another professor "asked me if you were a woman (!) [sic] by which I which I gather he can't recognize a female point of view if it bites him."
James Tiptree Jr. was, of course, Alice B. Sheldon. S/he corresponded extensively with other leading lights of SF but never deigned to meet any admirers. S/he opens humorously gaping questions about gender, indeed identity, as construction, born largely of expectation. When she finally peeled back her mask, she inspired shock and awe far richer than the President popularizing that term could conceptualize.
Sheldon didn't master her own mutability. She may have loved women more than men, but she cast her lot with men and marriage. Her psychology degree and CIA studies didn't mute the ringing of her own dissonances, or keep her from pulling the trigger on her sick husband, then on herself.
Phillips, a former contributor to Seattle Weekly, keeps the many compartments of this life from slopping, and frames each in a useful context. Alice B. Sheldon donated her body to science. A first-year medical student at George Washington University, fall 1987, presumably, unknowingly, used his/her scalpel to sunder one of American literature's most iridescent kaleidoscopes.