I picked up The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan due to a review that Tom "Duffbert" Duff did on it a year ago. I was not disappointed as this ranks as one of the best books I have read this year.
Contents: I - Promise: The Great Plowup, 1901-1930 II - Betrayal, 1931-1933 III - Blowup, 1934-1939 Epilogue Notes and Sources Acknowledgements Index
Recounting one of the worst man made ecological disasters to hit America (maybe even the world), Timothy Egan traces the history of the Dust Bowl before and during the Great Depression. He focuses on about six families, but also brings many supporting characters into the story, including Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt and Hugh Bennett, the man that made it his life's work to study the land and was instrumental in changing the way people, especially farmers, view the land. In fact, his is one of very few New Deal initiatives that exists to this day - soil conservation.
Just before the Great Depression, America was enjoying phenomenal growth and wealth. Farmers were making a killing, out in the Great Plains area of the United States (covering a vast majority of our Central States, like Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Nebraska, and the Dakotas). They were plowing under immense tracts of the plains to plant wheat, corn, cotton, and other crops. The number of acres plowed under are staggering. In a matter of a few short years, that area went from seeing herds of buffalo roaming the plains and many tribes of American Indians to an area of large cattle ranches to huge farms. Towns sprouted up everywhere, people were moving into the area in amazing numbers, lured by cheap land and great grain prices. And then the drought hit. All of that tilled and plowed land left the earth and went airborne, aided by constant winds. No one on the eastern seaboard believed that there was a "Dust Bowl," since they didn't live there. Until one of the storms, carrying huge amounts of Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, and Oklahoma dirt blanketed New York, Washington DC, and Boston.
Very well researched, Egan includes sources that lived through the Dust Bowl years, interviewing them. And that brings a feeling of utter and total collapse and poverty. These people were too poor to leave, too proud to leave. And if they left, they faced some harsh treatment from other Americans (California in particular was extremely hard on the refugees, treating them no better than dogs). It was shocking to read about how the land turned over and went airborne. How man devastated one of the most beautiful areas of the United States due to greed, ignorance, and hubris. And the government not only allowed it to happen but assisted. Imagine doctors having a term for a particular ailment striking the old and young in the area, "dust pneumonia," where a person inhaled so much dust that their lungs and stomachs were literally packed with dirt. You did not recover from this ailment.
While Egan uses a lot of source material (including incredible pictures of the area and the dust storms), there was one that really affected me - the diary entries of Don Hartwell, one of the farmers living in the area. It starts out full of life and happiness and digresses into ambivalence, sadness, and utter devastation as the drought continues and he is left with nothing. Absolutely nothing. A few of the passages will stay with me for a long time; Hartwell has a spring planting season of good luck, it rains and he is able to plant some corn, maize, and alfalfa. He is able to look out over his land and see the sprouts shooting up, and is happy with his good fortune. Then, in a day, a massive cloud of grasshoppers descends on his farm and eats everything, leaving him with nothing, no hope, no future. And then the winds bring the dirt, covering everything he sees, touches, and eats, adding more insult.
Egan is careful to let the reader know that all is still not well in the Plains states in his Epilogue. It seems that we have not learned anything in the past 70 years.
It is one of the most gut-wrenching books I have ever read. Like an episode of the old TV series "Time Tunnel" author Timothy Egan transports the reader back to the Great Plains in the 1930's. The stories of personal hardship and determination in "The Worst Hard Time" will likely hit you like a ton of bricks. This is a story that needs to be told again and again. As you will learn in "The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived … more
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The story of the people who lived through the nation's hardest economic depression and its worst weather event is one of the great untold stories of the Greatest Generation. To me, there was an urgency to get this story now because the last of the people who lived through those dark years are in their final days. It's their story, and I didn't want them to take this narrative of horror and persistence to the grave. At the same time, this part of America — the rural counties of the Great Plains — looks like it's dying. Our rural past seems so distant, like Dorothy's Kansas in the Wizard of Oz. Yet it was within the lifetime of people living today that nearly one in three Americans worked on a farm. Now, the site of the old Dust Bowl — which covers parts of five states — is largely devoid of young families and emptying out by the day. It's flyover country to most Americans. But it holds this remarkable tale that should be a larger part of our shared national story.
Do you see any parallels between the Dust Bowl and Hurricane Katrina, the worst natural disaster of our time?
There are so many echoes of what happened in the 1930s and the hurricane that hit the Gulf Coast in the summer of 2005. For starters, there were ample warnings that a large part of the United States could be rendered uninhabitable if people continued to live as they did — in this case, ripping up all the ...