Book Review: The Worst Hard Time

My mother was the bravest person I have ever known. Raised on a farm in North Dakota during The Great Depression, the challenges she and her family faced were immense. Imagine trudging out in the middle of the night in -30 degree temperatures to use the outhouse and then wipe yourself with pages of the Sears catalog? My biggest hardship is sitting in a car without heated seats. Because of their strong work ethic and frugal living, food on the farm was always plentiful, and they never turned away a hungry drifter.

The Great Depression was the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world, lasting from the stock market crash of 1929 to 1939. By 1933, when the Great Depression reached its lowest point, some 15 million Americans were unemployed and nearly half the country’s banks had failed. Bread lines, soup kitchens and rising numbers of homeless people became commonplace in America’s towns and cities. Farmers couldn’t afford to harvest their crops and left them rotting in the fields while people elsewhere starved.

Now imagine trying to survive in an inhospitable environment on top of the economic hardship. Earlier in the century when wheat prices doubled, tripled, and even quadrupled, a stampede of fortune hunters descended upon the southern plains. These Last Chancers—persecuted Germans from Russia, Scots-Irish immigrants from the South, and Mexicans—were encouraged by the government to take out cheap loans and plant as much wheat as possible as their patriotic duty. Land that was suited for grass and animals that eat grass, was ripped out and planted with acres of wheat. When the price of grain tanked, they abandoned their farms in droves. By 1935, 850 million tons of topsoil had blown away … that’s nearly eight tons of dirt for every resident of the United States. The grass that had protected the land against ferocious winds, violent thunderstorms, wildfires, and tornadoes, and cycles of drought was gone. Then came the dust storms.

The Worst Hard Time (Houghton Mifflin, 2005) by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist and author Timothy Egan, is a gritty disaster tale of survival, perseverance, and excruciating hunger and poverty. In his book, Egan follows a dozen families and their communities through the rise and fall of the Dust Bowl region and their desperate attempts to carry on through blinding black dust blizzards, crop failures, and the deaths of loved ones. They ate things like tumbleweeds—salted and canned—and roadkill cooked over an open fire. Some of the people he interviewed fought in World War II and witnessed incredible carnage, but they said the Dust Bowl was more traumatic.

The dust storms terrorized America’s High Plains (western Kansas, eastern Colorado, northeastern New Mexico, and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles) during the darkest years of the Depression and has been recognized as our nation’s greatest environmental disaster. A typical duster was a corrosive mix of sand and high-velocity air that could make cattle go blind and people cough until it hurt. Children died of dust pneumonia. The sky would blacken as great waves of dust rose up and fell. Sometimes the leading edge of a storm was a mile high. One particularly severe dust storm occurred on April 14, 1935. That one storm displaced an estimated 300 million tons of topsoil.

Singer-songwriter, Woodie Guthrie, described the event of that day in his song, “Great Dust Storm”:

On the 14th day of April of 1935,
There struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky.
You could see that dust storm comin’, the cloud looked deathlike black,
And through our mighty nation, it left a dreadful track.
From Oklahoma City to the Arizona line,
Dakota and Nebraska to the lazy Rio Grande,
It fell across our city like a curtain of black rolled down,
We thought it was our judgement, we thought it was our doom.

The Worst Hard Time is vivid and haunting. As a history buff, I found Egan’s masterful storytelling and his description of events and the people who endured them, fascinating. Unfortunately, I also found much of it to be tedious. He bounced back and forth between his interviewees, which made the book hard to follow. Walter Cronkite thought it was “can’t-put-it-down history,” but I did … often. This is a book best read in small doses, but still a wonderful lesson in American history and the calamities that can occur when we treat the environment carelessly. Three out of five stars.

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