“The Worst Hard Time”

December 1, 2009

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

Here’s another book I enjoyed reading while I was looking for non-fiction I thought you’d like. The Worst Hard Time is about the Dust Bowl—the southern Great Plains, particularly the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles and Kansas—during the Great Depression.

I think you’ll like it  just because it’s hard to believe the sheer enormity of the Dust Bowl—the idea that dust storms could roll in like 10,000-foot high mountains and suffocate all the farm animals (and people stuck outside) in their paths. That people could lock themselves inside on a regular basis and tape around all the window and door seams, drape wet sheets over all, and still come out coughing and spitting up black muck, could die of the ‘dust pneumonia’ that these “black blizzards” caused. (The animals outside would die because their lungs were so full of dust that they literally suffocated, unable to breathe air.)

Egan tells us many times that the environmental disaster was manmade. Settlers who came in and tore up the grasslands—which had been intact for thousands of years—created the perfect ingredients for a plague of Biblical proportions once a drought came. And ‘plague’ isn’t hyperbole—the loss of farms and livelihoods led to hunger and even starvation. The loss of arable land, the constant streams of dust led to other plagues—of rabbits, clubbed and killed in the thousands in Sunday recreational round-ups; of grasshoppers in the millions, eating everything in their paths; of centipedes crawling through the walls of houses.

It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could have managed to stay through years of the dust bowl conditions, but some people did. Egan makes the book interesting by following them from the early days when the land was plowed and wheat was planted through the 1930s when all their dreams were shattered.

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