Author Craig Volk to Discuss 'A Dust Bowl Book of Days, 1932' at 2020 Festival

By South Dakota Magazine & South Dakota Humanities Council

Editor's Note: A version of this feature story appears in our 2020 South Dakota Festival of Books guide produced by South Dakota Magazine. Download a free copy of the Festival Guide later this summer.

2020 Festival Presenter Craig Volk: The Dust Bowl's Dark Cloud

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president in a landslide in 1932. Dust storms were on the rise; 14 were reported across the country, and the number would double in the following year. World War I veterans marched on Washington, D.C., demanding back pay and pensions to help survive the growing Depression.

Forces under Gen. Douglas MacArthur eventually tear gassed the Bonus Army from their tents. And on a farm near Howard and a small house on Mitchell's main street, Margaret Spader Neises jotted daily notes in a diary no bigger than a deck of cards that shines a light on her life, her growing family and how South Dakotans endured the Great Depression.

Book Based on Inherited Diaries

Craig Volk inherited his grandmother's diaries, and along with memoirs and reminiscences from his mother, Joan, and other family members, authored "A Dust Bowl Book of Days, 1932," which he will discuss at the 2020 South Dakota Festival of Books. The book reads as a day-to-day account of Margaret's life, though it is actually synthesized from several diaries she kept throughout the 1930s.

Volk viewed 1932 as the most interesting year in the saga that was just beginning to play out, and which stuck with his family for a long time to come.

"They talked more about the Dirty Thirties than they did about World War II," Volk says. "It just had that dark cloud impact on them for an entire decade. I don't believe they ever got over it. They lived in fear that that kind of cataclysm could return."

Readers almost feel Margaret's pain, as she writes short notes — 50 words a day at most — about tensions with her husband and children, health problems, the ever-present yearning for rain to help a bare-bones garden and too-frequent visits from the "bankman."

It spills out in short bursts of exasperation. From January 22: "I hate Hoover. Who doesn't?" And from the end of June: "The Lord provides. He better."

The Dust Bowl: A Subject of Interest

The Dust Bowl era has long been a subject of interest for Volk, an associate professor of Film and Television at the University of Colorado-Denver. He grew up hearing the stories from his parents, aunts and uncles and wrote a screenplay set in the 1930s.

The creation of this narrative allowed him an opportunity to reconnect with the grandmother who died when he was just 3 years old and to try to place the family's experiences into the broader context of the Great Depression.

"I think of this as a biodrama," he says. "It is about developing survivor mentalities not only in an apocalyptic time but also within a growing family. I think of it as being every bit a story as it is a history. Moreover, I believe all good storytelling is character driven. And Grandmother Margaret was a rich and complex character." 

Find Out More

To find out more about the authors who will be part of the 2020 Festival of Books in Brookings Oct. 2-4, subscribe to our e-newsletter below. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some events may be held virtually. We will announce that information as it becomes available. (Note: Because of uncertainties surrounding COVID-19, the Festival schedule will be released later than usual this year. You can also check our website, sdbookfestival.com, and our social media sites, facebook.com/sdhumanities and twitter.com/sdhumanities for updates).