Set in 1930’s USA during The Great Depression, photographer John Clark is tasked with documenting the Dust Bowl; a period of severe dust storms that damage ecology and agriculture. But how much can photographs help the plight of the people when it comes to deadly dust storms wreaking havoc? Find out in Aimée de Jongh’s new graphic novel, Days of Sand!
Days of Sand immediately fills its reader with a sense of abandonment. Its first pages are full of empty, dismal landscapes, merely occupied by dust. Crops are dying, buildings are broken and there are no people to be seen. These initial wordless pages evoke a tone of loss and ruin which is intricately woven throughout the rest of this moving graphic novel.
In Oklahoma, 1937, we are introduced to our central protagonist John Clark, burying what we assume is a body in the empty, dusty countryside. This is a man full of regret. How did he get here? He’s about to tell us; the panels transform from dusty lilac hues to bright primary colours, as we retrospectively enter the city of Washington where our story begins.
We soon discover that John is attending a job interview and that, in hindsight, he sees this as the catalyst for the chaos that will apparently follow. John is a photographer, and is tasked with taking pictures of farmers who are suffering after an economic crash. After a successful interview, he is packed off to No Man’s Land (ominous much?) for the month, to investigate ‘the dust bowl’, otherwise known as the ‘American Sahara’, where dust clouds wreak devastation on people’s health, crops, and land. Leaving the pink morning haze behind him, John eagerly sets out to No Man’s Land, as the America he knows fades behind him – this is a trip that will change him forever.
A subtle transformation from thriving, healthy green into empty, endless yellow takes place as John enters Oklahoma, where ‘all green disappear[s]’’. As John comments, it’s clear that ‘death ha[s] come to this place’. He isn’t exaggerating. The accompanying illustrations make clear the complete devastation caused by the dust storms, showing animal skulls, buildings that have fallen in on themselves, and sand sand sand, as far as the eye can see, that even obscures the sun.
Taking in the illustrations of the people living in Oklahoma felt a little like reliving the strangeness of seeing people wearing masks during the pandemic for the first time. But times a million. These people aren’t just wearing masks, they’re donning goggles, gas masks, helmets, anything that will keep the dust out. The attitude of keeping things out seems to transpire to unknown people also, as John has a tough time convincing anyone to let him take his pictures, something he finds increasingly frustrating.
We don’t have to wait too long before we see a dust storm in the flesh – and Aimée de Jongh’s visualization of this is truly fantastic; a hurricane of oranges, blacks and yellows seemingly swallow John whole as random debris circles and hounds him as if he’s prey. We particularly enjoyed the way Jongh presented the wind – it almost looks etched or scratched onto the page as it swoops, swirls, and contorts around John as the burning sun watches the dust overcome.
Pretty soon, John is interacting with the locals and learning more about the negative impact the dust has made, including poverty, sickness, and even death. This slowly starts to take its toll on John, who begins to experience traumatic flashbacks about his abusive father. As he gets to know the locals, develops friendships and even potential relationships, and sees the effects that the dust storms are having, John becomes more and more disillusioned with taking photographs. What is the real purpose of them? Are they actively helping these people in need?
Aimée de Jongh is stunningly creative in her use of colour. This is especially transparent in the scenes in which John is in a different place entirely, whether this is physically or mentally. The atmosphere completely shifts, from the quiet pink hues of an early morning in the city to the bright vibrant blue of the sky in an open field, to a calming mix of purple and green in an evening drive through a forest.
There are fantastic details included throughout, reminding readers that this story isn’t purely fiction; the Dust Bowl really happened and was a terrifying experience for many. Details like the map at the beginning showing the scope of the dust bowl, photographs of the insane dust clouds, quotes from real-life witnesses, and the pictures of survivors for every new chapter demonstrate the real-life devastation. In short, Days of Sand fantastically reflects the desolation of the Dust Bowl and the consequences for real people. This moving graphic novel needs a place on every reader’s bookshelf.