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. Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist and author 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.
As only great history can, Egan's book captures the very voice of the times: its grit, pathos, and abiding courage. Combining the human drama of Isaac's Storm with the sweep of The American People in the Great Depression, The Worst Hard Time is a lasting and important work of American history.
Timothy Egan is a national enterprise reporter for the New York Times. He is the author of four books and the recipient of several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Seattle, Washington.
"As one who, as a young reporter, survived and reported on the great Dust Bowl disaster, I recommend this book as a dramatic, exciting, and accurate account of that incredible and deadly phenomenon. This is can't-put-it-down history." --Walter Cronkite
"The Worst Hard Time is wonderful: ribbed like surf, and battering us with a national epic that ranks second only to the Revolution and the Civil War. Egan knows this and convincingly claims recognition for his subject--as we as a country finally accomplished, first with Lewis and Clark, and then for 'the greatest generation, ' many of whose members of course were also survivors of the hardships of the Great Depression. This is a banner, heartfelt but informative book, full of energy, research, and compassion." --Edward Hoagland, author of Compass Points: How I Lived
"Here's a terrific true story--who could put it down? Egan humanizes Dust Bowl history by telling the vivid stories of the families who stayed behind. One loves the people and admires Egan's vigor and sympathy." --Annie Dillard, author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
"The American West got lucky when Tim Egan focused his acute powers of observation on its past and present. Egan's remarkable combination of clear analysis and warm empathy anchors his portrait of the women and men who held on to their places--and held on to their souls--through the nearly unimaginable miseries of the Dust Bowl. This book provides the finest mental exercise for people wanting to deepen, broaden, and strengthen their thinking about the relationship of human beings to this earth." --Patricia N. Limerick, author of The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West
- ISBN-13: 9780618346974
- ISBN-10: 061834697X
- Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
- Publish Date: December 2005
- Page Count: 340
- Reading Level: Ages 14-UP
Re-examining the Dust Bowl days
On an April afternoon in 1935, Hugh Bennett was lecturing a group of U.S. senators on the causes of the Great Plains Dust Bowl. As he spoke, the window darkened as if night were falling. Dust from the Midwestern plains had drifted all the way to the nation's capital and blotted out the sun. "This, gentlemen, is what I'm talking about," said Bennett. "There goes Oklahoma."
Nothing better illustrates the disastrous effects of bad applied science than the dust storms of the 1930s, the complex subject of Timothy Egan's new book, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. Egan tells the story of this disaster through the eyes of those who lived through itcowboys like Bam White and farmers like Don Hartwell who saw part of rural America literally blown away.
Scientists now say that the Dust Bowl, roughly comprised of western Kansas, southeastern Colorado, northern Texas and the Oklahoma panhandle, should never have been farmed in the first place. The region's topsoil was held in place against constant driving winds only by hardy native grasses. That didn't stop the federal government from bullishly promoting homestead farming throughout the plains in the 1920s. An unusual amount of rain, leading to a short-term agricultural boom, sustained the illusion that the sea of grass could be plowed up and farmed indefinitely. Once the rain stopped, unanchored soil kicked up, suffocating crops and blinding cattle. Farm children died of dust pneumonia; whole towns failed.
Egan debunks some prevalent myths about the Dust Bowl, most of them emanating from Hollywood. The novel Grapes of Wrath and its film version give the impression that most poor farm immigrants (aka Oakies) who moved to California in the 1930s were escapees from the Dust Bowl. Egan notes that, of the 221,000 people who moved to California from 1935 to 1937, only 16,000 were from the Dust Bowl. Films like The Plow that Broke the Plains give the impression that farmers alone were to blame for the disaster, but Egan notes that overgrazing cattle, drought, surplus crops, falling grain prices and homesteading laws that required big farms on small claims all contributed to flying topsoil.
Even now, 70 years later, the damage is not wholly repaired. Bennett's soil conservation program, launched in haste that April afternoon in Washington, D.C., has replanted much of the area with grass and united farmers in a scheme to rotate crops and save soil. It is the only one of Roosevelt's New Deal initiatives that survives today. But ghost towns and occasional dust storms still remind us that we displace nature at our own peril.
Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.