Ken Burns' oral history documentary "The Dust Bowl" aired on...

Ken Burns' oral history documentary "The Dust Bowl" aired on WNET/13. Pictured is Florence Thompson and her children in a pea pickers' camp in Nipomo, California, in March 1936. Credit: Library of Congress


WHEN | WHERE Sunday and Monday at 8 p.m. on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Boise City, far out on the Oklahoma panhandle, was the geographic center of the Dust Bowl, the man-made ecological disaster that ravaged the Great Plains during the 1930s. It also is the locus of this four-hour Ken Burns-Dayton Duncan film that collects facts -- 5,260,000 acres of native sod that farmers dug up and that was eventually reaped by the wind -- and oral histories.

Sunday's part one traces the roots of the catastrophe, while Monday's part two covers the land-saving efforts of FDR and, in particular, the so-called "next year people," so named because they always expected (or prayed) that rain would arrive the following year. It finally did, but not before a decade-long plague of dust, rabbits, grasshoppers and death.

MY SAY Burns and his longtime collaborator, Duncan, are soft touches for that oft-told story -- most often told by them -- of enduring American courage and character. From "The Civil War" to "The War" (World War II), they revere that hardscrabble soul -- man, woman or child -- who triumphs over adversity, while coating their narrative in a sweetly sentimental folksy musical track -- in a minor key.

"The Dust Bowl" has all this along with an iconic American landscape under an impossibly vast sky that periodically becomes choked with a gray-black monster. But this isn't just a man- against-the-elements story, but man against the elements he partly created. The filmmakers have located the perfect protagonists as witnesses: plainspoken Heartland archetypes, deeply wizened now, who look into the camera and recall distant events with such clarity and power that they seemed to have happened just yesterday. Burns and Duncan even find their ideal muse -- Caroline Henderson, a long-ago writer for the Atlantic, also a dirt farmer, whose elegiac words give the human and ecological tragedy a Homeric cast. "Before sun and rain," she wrote, "we all stand upon one common level."

BOTTOM LINE This beautiful and often moving film resonates even more powerfully with Sandy in our rearview mirror, while Burns' favorite theme -- the American character -- is drawn here with great clarity.


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