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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

About the Book (from The dust storms that terrorized the High Plains in the darkest years of the Depression were like nothing ever seen before or since. Timothy Egan’s critically acclaimed account rescues this iconic chapter of American history from the shadows in a tour de force of historical reportage. Following a dozen families and their communities through the rise and fall of the region, Egan tells of their desperate attempts to carry on through blinding black dust blizzards, crop failure, and the death of loved ones. Brilliantly capturing the terrifying drama of catastrophe, Egan does equal justice to the human characters who become his heroes, “the stoic, long-suffering men and women whose lives he opens up with urgency and respect” (New York Times). In an era that promises ever-greater natural disasters, The Worst Hard Time is “arguably the best nonfiction book yet” (Austin Statesman Journal) on the greatest environmental disaster ever to be visited upon our land and a powerful cautionary tale about the dangers of trifling with nature.

"Melt White was sickened by the rabbit drives, the plagues of hoppers, a town of random death and no comfort from the sky. 
The land was broken." (page 9)

My Thoughts: 
     Imagine an environment in which the very air you breathe is heavy with dust, soil, and sand. It blows into your eyes, ears, nose and throat. It settles into your hair and skin, and into every fiber of your clothing. Next, imagine that this same dust invades your place of safety, your haven from the storms, your home. Then, consider that this becomes your daily existence for years. The color green is erased from your design palette. All you see is the color of dirt- brown, red, yellow. Your landscape is completely altered and pests and rodents multiply by the thousands. Your means of living becomes impossible and your way of life is going extinct. You lose your livestock, your possessions, your pride, and sometimes even those you love. But you don't give in to the circumstances. You plant your feet into the farmland and wait, hoping that next year will bring about a change, a return to the way things used to be. You stay because this land, your land, is all that you have. Now imagine that you created this disaster...and there is no going back.

"They had removed the native prairie grass, a web of perennial species evolved over twenty thousand years or more, so completely that by the end of 1931 it was a different land- thirty-three million acres." (page 101)

     The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006) explores a piece of history that is often overshadowed by the exodus that occurred in dust ravaged states in the High Plains. This story is about those who stayed.
During The Great War which started in 1914, wheat would become America's most valuable commodity. As shipments in Europe became blocked, the United States filled the world's void and encouraged farmers to plant more wheat, turn more earth. In parts of Texas, New Mexico, Kansas, and Oklahoma, this production would bring more people to isolated lands and create an opportunity for many to obtain the American Dream- land, financial stability, and a place to call home. 
     Americans, including many immigrants, were encouraged to travel west and set up homesteads on prairie land that had never been farmed. It had served as grassland for Bison while the Native Americans controlled the land, and then for cattle as Americans moved in and eradicated the Bison. It is an area that experiences periodic droughts but native grasses had the ability to hold moisture in their roots, keeping the grass in place and the soil in tact. As an influx in wheat farming began to occur and technology introduced more modern methods of plowing which turned the earth in considerably less time, the grasses were quickly ripped from the ground leaving it exposed to the wind.
     Initially farmers saw much success. Record rainfalls, high wheat prices, and a desirable market provided them with a quality of life they had never known. But just as they were settling into their visions of a bright future, a series of events halted their forward movement. The nation's stock market crashed and banks closed, drying up the market- while there was plenty of wheat to purchase, the consuming country could no longer afford to buy it and the price plummeted. The farmers' solution: plow more wheat. If prices were down, they would simply have to sell more product. More earth was turned, more grass eradicated. A period of drought would then set in and with no rain to provide moisture to the soil, the winds would begin to blow the land and create massive storms of dust. "The first black duster was a curiosity, nothing else. The weather bureau observers wrote it up and put it in a drawer" (page 88).
     Years of dust storms would follow with little to no rain, leading up to Black Sunday: April 14, 1935. This major storm impacted most of the country and brought the dust of the plains all the way to the east coast. "The storm carried twice as much dirt as was dug out of the earth to create the Panama Canal" (page 8). These storms accompanied with the inability to provide a way of living for families, pushed the people to their limits. President Franklin D. Roosevelt would make this region a priority during this presidency, implementing many programs and projects to aid the people and find a way to heal the land by returning grasses to the vacant soil.
     The Worst Hard Time is a detailed exploration of the Dust Bowl, how it was created and how it forever changed American landscape. But it is also about the human spirit and what it takes to break it. Egan's extensive research is evident through his writing and telling of these stories that are both heartbreaking and inspiring. The strength of character of those who experienced, endured, and survived the Dust Bowl is dauntless, a testament to the power of optimism- that next year will be better.

Happy Reading,

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