Monday, July 27, 2009

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

The Worst Hard Time is a non-fiction book describing the impact of the depression on the area in the United States hit hardest by drought. Unlike Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which fictionalizes a family’s migration out of the Dust Bowl, Egan focuses on the families that stayed. Many stayed because they could not afford to move, whereas others were optimistic and initially believed this was only a temporary condition. After a few years even the most optimistic were fleeing, if they could.

I did not realize before reading this book how devastating the dust storms were or how many people died of dust pneumonia. Here‘s one description of the storm that happened on what became known as Black Sunday, April 14, 1935:

“The front edge of the duster looked two thousand feet high. Winds were clocked at sixty-five miles an hour. A few minutes earlier there had been bright sunshine and a temperature of eighty-one degrees, without a wisp of wind. Drivers turned on their headlights but could not see ahead of them, or even see the person sitting next to them.”

There are multiple descriptions of this storm from many different towns and people. The hardest to read is that of a mother who had just buried her baby and attended her grandma’s funeral.

There are some interesting politics going on during this time. FDR was elected president in 1932 and immediately began giving some relief to farm families. Before this there was no safety net at all. Hugh Bennett, head of the Soil Erosion Service during the Roosevelt administration, wanted to try and restore the grasslands and ensure against future dust storms.

“… as the dusters picked up in ferocity, Bennett was one of the first in Washington to try and convince people it was not just another natural disaster or an epic drought. It seemed like something caused by man, a by-product of hubris and ignorance on a grand scale. Maybe some of it could be reversed. But to do so, people would have to think anew about how they used the land.”

Bennett found Congress a hard sell. He planned his next presentation for five days after Black Sunday. That afternoon during his presentation the day turned dark and dust from that storm fell on Washington DC. Bennett got his funding.

The Worst Hard Time does a good job of illuminating the individual lives and the families that are hard hit by this tragedy as well as giving an overview of the whole time period. I did find the book a bit longer than necessary, but appreciated the historical photos included.

Escape to Books


Dr. DRL said...

This is indeed the best single, recent book on the Dust Bowl. I've used it for several semesters in class and students respond to it much more readily than some of the more academic texts (the best of which is now almost 25 years old). The personal stories Egan incorporates-- along with his narrative style --really makes for an accessible portrait of this critical period in our history.

Of course, everything Tim Egan's written has been of similar high quality. I strongly recommend his book The Good Rain to anyone interested in the culture and history of the Pacific Northwest as well.

Nice review!


Cheryl M. said...

Thanks Derek. I have The Good Rain somewhere. It'd be neat to reread it with the experience of living on the drier side of the Cascades.

UK said...

This was an era I was aware of but didn't really understand fully until I read this book. The suffering of the dust bowlers and their spirit to survive changed the way I see things--my concept of family, hardship, and loss. As America struggles with recession, we must remind ourselves that those who have gone before had difficulties we can barely begin to understand in spite of our current hard times.