You ever talk to one of those annoying people who always feels compelled to one-up your tales of woe? You try to get a little sympathy for spraining your ankle, and all they can do is go on about the time they broke their leg twenty years ago. Then there’s the other variation, where you try to talk about a difficult situation with an older relative and they bust out the “back in my day…” line to trump you. It’s like, enough already old timer.
Well here’s the thing about the folks who lived through the Dust Bowl of the 1930s – their stories really are worse than your stories. Every time. And they don’t have to embellish or exaggerate. The trick is to make those stories readable and engaging, which isn’t as easy as it may seem. Fortunately we have Timothy Egan‘s 2005 work, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. It’s a skillfully written book that captures the tragedy and pathos of the time even better than I expected.
Egan sets the stage with a fascinating history of the region, which wasn’t always the brown, desolate place it would become. A few hundred years ago the Midwest was a great expanse of grassland, and was home to millions of bison as well as large, thriving Native American tribes. European settlers explored the area but found it unfit for farming. In fact, the region was known for a long time as the Great American Desert (although it wasn’t what we think of as a desert, it did contain vast stretches of treeless, semi-arid land). Eventually the white man started moving into the more hospitable parts of the Midwest, but left the High Plains largely alone.
Fast forward to the Civil War period, and what was a trickle of settlement became a steady stream with the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862. Pretty soon all the prime real estate was taken, leaving the formerly undesirable High Plains (essentially the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, northeast New Mexico, southeast Colorado, and western Kansas). Successive legislation made even harsh land seem like a good opportunity, and within a few decades towns popped up in places they had no business being.
Long story short, by the beginning of the 20th century the recipe for disaster on the High Plains was nearly complete. The Indians and bison had been hunted or driven off their land, replaced by land speculators and cattle (and a little later, farmers and crops). But more importantly the rich, fertile topsoil and grasslands that had developed over thousands of years was ripped up and replaced by poorly planned farms. Things looked good for awhile, as a period of above-average rainfall and rising wheat prices made the whole enterprise seem like more American ingenuity. And then came the fall.
First the Great Depression hit, which decimated agricultural prices. Wheat first sold for a fraction of its former highs, and then didn’t sell at all. Desperate to make some sort of money, farmers ripped up what little remained of the native grasslands and planted more crops, hoping to make up for lost profits in pure volume. They picked the worst possible time to do this, as the second thing to hit in the early 1930s was a nearly decade-long drought.
So now you had millions of acres of land that had lost its anchor, and the crops that replaced it lay withered in the fields. Oh yeah, and did I mention that the region is typically subject to some of the highest average wind speeds in the nation? Well it is, and that wind started to pick up the soil with a vengeance. These dust storms were called many things – “dusters”, “black blizzards”, and “black rollers” to name just a few. Any one storm could be bad, but the cumulative effect was a nightmare. Just breathing became a health hazard, and an untold number of residents died of “dust pneumonia”. The static electricity from the storms was so great that cars shorted out on the road and one person could knock another to the ground with just a touch.
So like I was saying, it really was worse back in their day.
Egan makes the tribulations of the Dust Bowl residents very real, and he gives the reader a true sense of foreboding doom and then slowly unfolding misery. His stories are based on a combination of historical research, interviews with survivors, and even family journals and diaries. They all combine to paint a very vivid picture of the time.
Like any good story there are heroes and villains. Egan pulls no punches with regards to the homesteaders, who he portrays as both. He obviously admires their tenacity and will to survive, but by no means lets them off the hook for partially getting themselves into their own mess in the first place.
One of the most powerful devices in The Worst Hard Time is used sparingly – it’s a diary written by a Nebraska farmer who had worked the land for decades, only to see his entire life be blown away. Over the course of a few years, he loses his crops, his possessions, and then finally his farm and his wife.
I don’t think you have to be a history buff to appreciate The Worst Hard Time. Egan gives you all the facts you need without turning it into a dry textbook, and his writing style is extremely engaging. His passion for the material is evident throughout. Overall it’s a brutal account, but one that needs to be read by anyone bemoaning our current economic or climatological conditions.
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