Parents' Guide to

The Dust Bowl

By Joyce Slaton, Common Sense Media Reviewer

age 12+

Powerful, disturbing tour through environmental devastation.

Movie PG 2012 240 minutes
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Best not to watch The Dust Bowl right before bed, as you may have terrible dreams of menacing black clouds and starving children. This documentary is no dry recitation of history, but instead, a horror story from the past that seems all too relevant in our changing-climate days of dragging-on droughts and terrifying super storms. Survivors matter-of-factly describe having no shoes to wear, their only dresses made out of feed sacks, and nothing on the table but bread and lard, if they could even scrape up enough of that. One particularly gross (and affecting) story concerns a mother so afraid she wouldn't be able to feed her brood that when her young son swallowed two dimes, she made him use "a slop bucket" for a bathroom and sorted through his wastes until she "dug out" the two dimes. Now that is poverty!

Burns clearly has a positive view of FDR's New Deal programs, such as the Works Progress Administration and the National Youth Administration, which kept many families intact and eating during the Depression but also doubled the (then minor) national debt, which has since continued to grow, a perspective absent from the documentary. Instead, The Dust Bowl concentrates on its survivors and the incredible scale of the devastation. That last part may alienate younger viewers, who won't be able to make sense out of Burns declarations that millions of acres of land did this, and 200 million pounds of soil did that. The powerful images of menacing black clouds and skinny, sad people will make Burns' point instead, to an extent that kids will question their parents after watching, needing to make sure such a thing can't happen today. It'll be the rare parent able to wholeheartedly reassure her kids, however, with today's climate-change news.

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