A setting can play a dramatic role in story writing, as if it is a character unto itself. Shaking its fist in the background of “Beulah’s House of Prayer” like malevolent spirit is a bleak spot of history that resulted from a financial collapse and the destruction of the land. But the story Cynthia A. Graham tells is not bleak, despite the combined circumstances of The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.
Set in the Oklahoma panhandle in the 1930s, in a town that is as emaciated as its inhabitants, the story begins with the arrival of Sugar Watson, a young, orphaned trapeze performer taxed with the somber and dubious mission of burying her father in his hometown. The inhabitants of Barmy are as dreary as their surroundings, many of whom are just hanging by a dust-covered thread. The train—which doesn’t even stop in Barmy anymore—made an exception in Sugar’s case, depositing her in the closest place to hell that she’s ever seen.
But it’s the quirkiness of the individuals and their plights that make the story so fascinating and compelling. Layers are pulled back, exposing the small kernels of humanity that dire times have not completely snuffed out. With gentleness and humor, the author gives us an indelible look inside times that seem unsurmountable, yet are a glory to behold in the mind’s eye, and she uses history to show us the amazing resilience of the human spirit.
It’s my pleasure to welcome back the very talented Cynthia A. Graham:
Like many, I enjoy reading history. As I read The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, I was surprised to learn that, unlike what I’d been led to believe after reading Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, fully two-thirds of those living in the Dust Bowl stayed in place. As I continued to read, I became more and more astonished by the things I learned. So much of the Dust Bowl mystique is shaped by Steinbeck, so I decided to tell the story of those who stayed behind and endured. I wanted to give a voice to the vast majority of farmers who stayed on the family farm throughout the Depression.
But as Egan points out, most of the people who lived through these hard times never spoke of them. Like World War II veterans, they reasoned that after living through hell there was no need to conjure it up again, and therefore, much of what they experienced remained locked away. But Egan sought these people out and finally, after all these years, they began to discuss what they’d seen and endured. And as I learned what these survivors of the worst man-made environmental catastrophe in history went through, I knew I wanted to write about them. It was their stories I wanted to tell in Beulah’s House of Prayer.
Usually writing does not come easy for me, but in this instance I heard a voice, a voice that begged to have its story told. I was born in 1936 on a ragged, wasted little strip of land known as the Oklahoma panhandle. This voice stayed with me throughout the story, narrating from afar.
As I wrote Beulah, I began to enjoy the vivid characters that seemed to come into being of their own free will. The main protagonists are Sugar Watson and Homer Guppy, two lonely, young people who go in search of treasure and find more than they bargained for. And I began enjoying the minor characters as well, characters like Marigold Lawford, the young widow of the richest man in town whose parents traded her to him for a truck. And, of course, the book’s namesake, Beulah Clinton, a Holy Ghost preacher whose husband was carried away by a tornado. Her arrival in Barmy, Oklahoma coincides with that of Sugar Watson’s and becomes the catalyst for the story.
I tried to walk a fine line writing Beulah. I wanted to be realistic about the harshness of the Dust Bowl. I didn’t want to candy-coat facts such as over 7,000 people dying of dust pneumonia, or, to put a fine point to it, they died from simply breathing. I didn’t want to ignore the fact that suicide and alcoholism were ways that many coped. And I didn’t want to gloss over the mental toll of facing day after day of dry dust so thick even wet towels couldn’t keep it out.
But I knew when I began I didn’t want to write a story of sadness and defeat, but a story of grace and endurance. I sought to honor and acknowledge those who walked through these events — through the heat and the bugs and the hunger, and came out stronger on the other side. I didn’t want the story to be bleak. And, in the end, though it is difficult, it is not depressing or sad. Instead, it is a testimony to love and hope, those things that undoubtedly kept people going throughout days and days of dust that fell like snow.