The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006; $28; 340 pages.
FROM THE DUST 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 who 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 80s and 90s, 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.
"This is can't-put-it-down history." -- Walter Cronkite
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
Publishers Weekly: Egan tells an extraordinary tale in this visceral account of how America's great, grassy plains turned to dust, and how the ferocious Plains winds stirred up an endless series of "black blizzards" that were like a biblical plague: "Dust clouds boiled up, ten thousand feet or more in the sky, and rolled like moving mountains" in what became known as the Dust Bowl. But the plague was man-made, as Egan shows: the plains weren't suited to farming, and plowing up the grass to plant wheat, along with a confluence of economic disaster -- the Depression -- and natural disaster -- eight years of drought -- resulted in an ecological and human catastrophe that Egan details with stunning specificity.... With characters who seem to have sprung from a novel by Sinclair Lewis or Steinbeck, and Egan's powerful writing, this account will long remain in readers' minds.
Kirkus Reviews: Grim, riveting account by New York Times reporter Egan makes clear that although hurricanes and floods have grabbed recent headlines, America's worst assault from Mother Nature came in the form of ten long years of drought and dust.
The "dust bowl" of the 1930s covered 100 million acres spread over five states: Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska, and Colorado. From 1930 to 1935, nearly a million people left their farms, littered with animal corpses and stunted crops. Towns simply disappeared. Thousands died from "dust pneumonia," a new condition born of swallowing and inhaling the swirling topsoil.... The great southern plains, once covered with native grasses that fed the buffalo and held the soil in place, were essentially stripped bare in the 1920s by wheat farmers eager to cash in on cheap land and high grain prices. The newly invented tractor made the job easier, and unusually wet weather in the late '20s made farming on the arid plains seem feasible. But then the Depression hit, wheat prices crashed, and once-bountiful farms went fallow, abandoned to the deepening drought and ever-blowing winds that literally sent the soil skyward.
Stark and powerful, a gripping if depressing read and a timely reminder that a Nature abused can exact a terrible retribution.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Timothy Egan, born in Seattle in 1954 and raised, primarily, in Spokane, 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 with his wife and children.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
Tim Egan, from his home in Seattle, said that his parents had nine children and little money. They moved the family across the state, to Spokane, when Egan still was relatively young.In a New York Times article, Mr. Egan wrote: "At age seven, I walked into first grade at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary elementary school in Spokane and was confronted by an enormous poster depicting the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Our school was blue-collar, the second- and third-generation Irish and Italian children from huge families. We had nine in ours, but could not compete with the Flynns, down the street, who had 13, or the Phillipses, who had 19."
"The Jesuits," Mr. Egan told me, from his study desk, "saved me at Gonzaga. Gonzaga Prep was a school that went out of its way to help blue-collar people. They took us in. I worked in the kitchen and got a great education."
After graduation from Gonzaga in 1973, Mr. Egan enrolled at the University of Washington. He also began work. "I got my degree in 1980. What happened was, I took a job [on the staff of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ] before I got my degree, so I had to go back and get it a few years later." In 1989, he joined the New York Times .
Mr. Egan is concerned that readers will not care about the Dust Bowl days. "It seems so long ago to so many people. One point I tried to make fairly high up in the book, in the introduction, is that those people who lived through that, at least some of them are with us now, and this is their story. It happened in their lifetime. It didn't happen in long ago, far away.
"These people lived through the most dramatic technological innovations in the Great Plains. Those innovations did change the Great Plains overnight. Without those changes you still would have had relatively small family farms, people working the land within the scale of what they could sustain. But with tractors you brought industrial might to what was a family agrarian situation. And then you throw in the wild volatility of wheat prices, which have never done any swing since -- today the price of wheat is almost below what it was 80 years ago. So you had this convergence of one-time-only economics and technology."