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CSotD: Intruder in the Days of Dust
Derf Backderf’s short comment, as he wrapped up this year’s MOCCA Festivalwas enough to send me scrambling to the Internet to order a copy of Aimee de Jongh’s “Days of Sand,” and, if that’s not enough of a compliment to Derf — author of “Trashed,” “My Friend Dahmer” and ”Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio— the fact that I bought it ($22.99) rather than asking for a review copy should be.
As should be the fact that I’m much more into his graphic journalism, along with that of Joe Sacco and the graphic memoirs of Brian Fies than I am into graphic fiction, which Days of Sand is.
But I was interested in the topic of this historical novel, the Dust Storms of the 1930s, and it didn’t take a lot of poking around on line to realize that de Jongh was going to combine her storytelling with some solid research on the period , on its causes, on its impacts and on how it was depicted.
The story is of a young NYC-based photographer, John Clark, who lands a job with the Federal Writers Project to document the crisis in Oklahoma.
In this assignment, de Jongh melds both the fictional and the historic aspects of her story: The efforts of the Federal Writers’ Project to document life in the Depression were critical to keeping the crisis top-of-mind for both the government and for more fortunate Americans, but, as John quickly learns, the term “document” is loosely based.
He is being dispatched to the Oklahoma Panhandle not to discover what’s out there but to bring back what his editors expect him to find. The first issue he faces, as a journalist, comes when he is handed a list of the photographs he is assigned to take and given instructions to make them look the way they are expected to look, even if it requires posing and props.
“The truth is there,” they explain to him, “it’s just arranged differently.”
But if John rails a bit over being sent to depict rather than to discover, it blends in with the fictional story, given that his dedication to photography is as dubious as the assignment: Well-intentioned and even honest in its way, but neither well thought-out or based on true artist.
His own life might as well be written out for him by others, the way his assigned photographs have been.
Here de Jongh plants what one of my writing professors in college called a time bomb. John has a portfolio of photographs of poor Black people in New York City, which seem, to him, to his employers and — for the moment — to the reader, a sign of his ability to find good subjects and illuminate their lives in well- chosen images.
Later, the time bomb goes off, and you realize he has been doing what is today in journalism called “parachuting” — dropping in to cover something he’s not part of, getting what seems appropriate to an outsider, and then returning home to his comfort zone, always a tourist, never an active part of the scene.
However, if the reader only learns this later, John himself discovers it quickly, finding himself a stranger and, worse, an intruder, in a land far from his East Coast city home, not only stranded literally — his car bogs down in the dust and the locals marvel that he didn’t think to bring a shovel — but stranded as well among people he doesn’t understand and whose trust he struggles to earn.
The fictional aspect brings together his doubts about both his choice of a profession and the value and meaning of the art he proposes to create. His reflections on his journalism are deep and — sadly for him — valid.
They’ve also been buried too long, and, as he begins to find his feet among the impoverished but courageous farmers, and to shed his callow youth in the warmth of their acceptance, these personal questions insisted on being faced and addressed.
He does find that warmth and acceptance, but don’t expect a happy ending, in part because the more the Dust Bowl farmers come to like him, the less he comes to like himself, and in part because this was a rough time in a rough land and happy endings simply weren’t part of anybody’s experience.
However, there is both character development and a sort of conclusion, if not to the story he was sent to find, at least to the one he brought with him.
Days of Sand is both good storytelling and good history. While I hadn’t heard of de Jonghshe’s well-established and highly regarded in Europe, with additional graphic novels and awards under her belt, and those who follow the European market seem with “Dagen van Zand” in her native Dutch, “Jours de Sable” in French, and now, in English, “Days of Sand.”
A quibble: She includes two footnotes, which, were I her editor, I’d have asked her to delete as intrusive, breaking her carefully established mood and flow. And they are unnecessary, given that she generously includes, at the end of the story, several pages detailing her sources for this painstakingly researched book.
Anytime you find yourself turning a quibble into a compliment, it was a small quibble indeed.
Your local bookshop may not have Days of Sand in stock — its American release is today — but it’s worth special-ordering not only to support them but also because, if they’re smart, they’ll order two copies, putting one on the shelves for some lucky browser to discover before the awards Derf has predicted begin piling up.