Days of Sand is an unforgettable graphic novel by Aimée de Jongh, a Rotterdam-based comics artist, animator, and illustrator, based on real-life stories from the American Dust Bowl.
Aimée’s big break as a comic artist came early when, at 22, she began the daily Snippers series for the Dutch newspaper Metro. She stuck with this until she was 25, when she published her first graphic novel in 2014, the award-winning The Return of the Honey Buzzard. Her international reputation then grew following the publication in 2018 of Blossoms in Autumn, a graphic novel about elderly love written by Belgian comic author Zidrou.
Just before this, she entered the world of slow graphic journalism. She visited the refugee camps on Lesbos in 2017, entering areas where cameras were not allowed. Her work from this visit, titled Europe’s Waiting Room (which can be read in English here), inspired new projects bringing a greater focus to mature subjects and non-fiction.
Days of Sand
Days of Sand is Aimée’s biggest project to date and was inspired by a photo exhibition of Walker Evans in 2017 that included images he took as a photographer for Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration (more below) during the Dust Bowl era.
Days of Sand is set in the United States in 1937. In the middle of the Great Depression, 22-year-old photographer John Clark is brought in by the Farm Security Administration to document the calamitous conditions of the Dust Bowl in the central and southern states, in order to bring the farmers’ plight to the public eye.
When he starts working through his shooting script, however, he finds his subjects to be unreceptive. What good are a couple of photos against relentless and deadly dust storms? The more he shoots, the more John discovers the awful extent of their struggles, coming to question his own role and responsibilities in this tragedy sweeping through the centre of the country.
A moving and unforgettable tale, inspired by real-life stories of courage and perseverance against all odds.
The graphic novel, which is out now (published 14 April 2022 – SelfMadeHero), has taken Aimée 4-to 5 years of research, including a 2019 field trip through the United States with her partner Bob to visit the Dust Bowl area, museums, experts, and historians at the University of Bakersfield who hold the California Odyssey Project & Dust Bowl Migration Archives which include photos, articles, resources, as well as extensive audio interviews which tell first-hand experiences of hardships and experiences of many who would have been children at the time.
Between 1929 and 1939, there was a severe worldwide economic depression. Termed the Great Depression, this was compounded in the US by a series of droughts which, due to farm mechanisation and the converting of arid grassland to cultivated cropland, led to the topsoil turning to dust which the wind then blew away in dust storms that often blackened the sky. Many died from famine and dust pneumonia. This ecological disaster became known as the Dust Bowl, which inspired John Steinback’s Grapes of Wrath – the story of tenant farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought to look for work and survive. It also inspired Woody Guthrie’s Dustbowl Ballads (1940), thought to be one of the first concept albums.
Californians called these migrants Okies, a derogatory term that led to many being treated as outcasts. In 1937, California passed the “Anti-Okie Law,” making it a misdemeanour to “bring or assist in bringing” any indigent person into that state.
In response to the crisis, President Franklin D. Roosevelt put in place a series of programs such as public work programs called the New Deal. As part of this program, he set up the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1937 to combat rural poverty. There was a photography arm of the agency which sent out photographers to report and document the plight of these poor farm labourers. Among the photographers, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange are probably the most well-known, with Lange’s photo of a mother (Florence Owens Thompson) with her two children, a pea picker in California, being the one most recognised from her extensive work.
In 1960, Lange spoke about her experience of taking the photograph:
“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.”
Although Aimée’s novel is a work of fiction, it is based on historical facts and research. Seeing as the work of Walker Evans inspired this project, it’s no surprise that some of his photos call to mind sequences in her illustrations, such as the image he took of Allie Mae Burroughs against the wooden planks of her home. Although he did make use of more portable discreet cameras (including one he could hide under his coat to take photos of unsuspecting subway passengers – ‘Many Are Called‘ 1966), at the time, he preferred to use a large-format 8×10 view camera. These were cumbersome and heavy, took time to set up, required a tripod to hold it steady, and he had to load one sheet of film at a time. Not exactly a point-and-shoot job, although the detail in the results was impressive.
The desperate situation that most of Walker and Lange’s subjects found themselves in, like Florence pictured above, must have affected both photographers. After all, they had to give a little of themselves to these people to gain their trust. The comparative comfortable lives they had back home must have seemed a million miles away from the lives of these migrant workers.
I’m sure that Aimée’s own experiences of the refugee camps on Lesbos in 2017 played a part in shaping this story, and that’s reflected in the dilemma faced by the 22-year-old photographer John Clark in Day of Sands. His life is changed by what he sees through the lens. How could it not be?
Aimée’s graphic novel Days of Sand is an Eisner-nominated book and was a bestseller in both the Netherlands and France. Buy it here.