BookBrowse Reviews The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

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The Worst Hard Time

The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl

by Timothy Egan

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2005, 320 pages
    Sep 2006, 352 pages

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Egan's book captures the very voice of the times: its grit, pathos, and abiding courage. Winner of the 2006 National Book Award. History

From the book jacket: The dust storms that terrorized America's High Plains in the darkest years of the Depression were like nothing ever seen before or since, and the stories of the people that held on have never been fully told. Timothy Egan follows a half-dozen families and their communities through the rise and fall of the region, going from sod homes to new framed houses to huddling in basements with the windows sealed by damp sheets in a futile effort to keep the dust out. He follows their desperate attempts to carry on through blinding black blizzards, crop failure, and the deaths of loved ones. Drawing on the voices of those who stayed and survived—those who, now in their eighties and nineties, will soon carry their memories to the grave—Egan tells a story of endurance and heroism against the backdrop of the Great Depression.

Comment: In April 1935 the biggest dust storm in US history hit five states, from the Dakotas to Texas. On just one day in April, "Black Sunday", more than 300,000 tons of top soil were carried away (twice as much dirt as was taken out of the Panama Canal during seven years of construction). Cyclical droughts and high winds are normal for the area, so we can't blame nature for "Black Sunday" and the years that followed. The disaster was a direct result of farming methods that had destroyed the natural ecology of the plains in a remarkably short time. Farmers plowed up the land to plant wheat, destroying the native deep rooting plants that held the topsoil in place, they removed trees that acted as wind barriers, and they shot the bison in order to raise cattle on vast ranches. In 10 years it's estimated that 25 million bison were eradicated.

Before the end of the almost 10-year drought about a quarter of a million people had left the Great Plains, often journeying West (such as the Joads family in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath), but at least two-thirds hunkered down and stayed put, and it is their stories that Egan records. People such as George Ehrilich who, in Egan's words didn't "flee the czar's army, survive a hurricane at sea and live through homegrown hatred caused by the Great War just to abandon 160 acres of Oklahoma that belonged to him and his 10 American-born children."

Egan vividly describes what the dust storms were actually like and how the people who stayed lived out their Job-like existence as year after year they watched their cattle starve, the vegetation die, and the dust pile ever higher. He talks of the plagues of spiders, snakes and grasshoppers (aka locusts) that exploded, how people tethered themselves with rope just to walk a few hundred yards from their front door, and how the children coughed themselves to death with "dust pneumonia".

"It was not a rain cloud. Nor was it a cloud holding ice pellets. It was not a twister. It was thick like coarse animal hair; it was alive. People close to it described a feeling of being in a blizzard — a black blizzard, they called it — with an edge like steel wool."

While Egan has nothing but admiration for the individual farmers caught up in the devastation, he has a harsher view for the policies, and the people behind the policies, that managed to eradicate the "greatest grassland in the world" in an historical blink of an eye.

Could history repeat itself? Of course it could! Currently the same region is experiencing a period of drought, but the large agribusinesses continue to run vast farms by drawing on the Ogallala Aquifer - a huge, but not inexhaustible, water source created 15,000 years ago when the glaciers melted.

"Nothing compares to the black dusters of the 1930s, when the simplest thing in life — taking a breath — was a threat."
- A survivor, whose life spanned the 1918 flu epidemic, the Great Depression and two world wars.

This review is from the September 6, 2006 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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