Book Shelf: The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story Of Those Who Survived The Great American Dust Bowl

November 15, 2007

 

THE WORST HARD TIME: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THOSE WHO SURVIVED THE GREAT AMERICAN DUST BOWL
By Timothy Egan
 Houghton Mifflin, $28

Reviewed by EMMA BROWN

When I bought Timothy Egan's "Lasso the Wind" last summer in Ashland, Ore., the bookstore owner chuckled and said, "Tim Egan, lucky guy, you know he covers the West for The New York Times?" I said yeah, that's a job I'd like to have. She shook her head and said, "He can write whatever he wants and no one back East knows whether he's telling the truth."

Which is not exactly why I want his job, but is not a completely untrue thing to say about someone who writes about a mythical region for people who want, very much, to believe in a myth.

When Egan reports on the West, however, he doesn't perpetuate myths: he wrestles them to the ground, breaks them down, and extracts the bits of truth out of which they are built. Then— whether he's writing about immigration, water scarcity or energy development, he finds the characters, the landscape and the story that best illustrate those truths.

In his National Book Award-winning book, "The Worst Hard Time," Egan draws on that ability to humanize and dramatize a larger- than-life issue. This time, it's the Dust Bowl, a story Americans know so well and so incompletely that it qualifies as a legend.

On Sunday, April 14, 1935, a massive cold front, carrying tons of dust held aloft by violent winds, swept south across the plains from North Dakota to Texas. Americans' collective memory of the Depression is built, in part, out of photographs taken that day—the storm's black wall looming over vulnerable farmhouses, roiling clouds rolling over a small-looking ridge.

But the worst hard time lasted much longer than one terrible Sunday, or one terrible season. Dust storms buffeted the plains for the better part of a decade, and left the land and its people desperate for relief. By digging for the lost details of that time—and, in particular, by resuscitating the small and poignant stories of people who lived through the 1930s on the High Plains—Egan brings to life an episode now regarded as the worst long-term environmental disaster in American history.

Take the Folkers: Fred and Katherine, homesteaders who started out simply, with mules and a plow and a shack infested with centipedes that Katherine killed with a flat iron. High wheat prices during and after World War I meant sudden wealth and rescue from the misery of farm living: a real house, a car, and a piano for their daughter Faye. "The centipede scratching, the hissing of an iron on insect legs," writes Egan, "was replaced by piano music that drifted out of the Folker's new house and settled on fruit trees and the fresh-plowed fields."

When the stock market crashed in 1929, wheat prices fell, and the dreams and ambitions of families like the Folkers faltered. With increasing speed and desperation, farmers ripped up native buffalo grass in order to plant more wheat, trying to make up for low prices with greater volume. Prices fell further. Farmers defaulted on their loans, lost their land. Banks closed. Things were bad on the Plains. And then they got worse.

Drought descended on the Plains just as homesteaders were scraping away the last of the plains' native grasses. The combination of little rain and millions of acres of prairie soil left exposed for the first time in thousands of years resulted in dust storms that suffocated cows, strangled wheat and sickened children.

Farmers hung on to a heartbreaking hope that each season would be better than the last—this year, the rain will come, the wheat will grow. This year, we'll be able to buy shoes. This year, we'll be able to pay the bank, and we won't lose the tractor or the combine or the house. This year, we won't be desperate

All that hope meant that most people stayed stubbornly on the plains. "They hung on because this was still the only place they could call theirs. Going to the city, or to California, was a journey to the unknown," Egan wrote.

But each year brought more storms, more debt and more heartache. The desperation of the time is vivid in a scene of a town-wide rabbit-killing derby, brought on by the animals' munching of scant vegetation:

"They spread to the edge of the fenced section, forming a perimeter, then moved toward the center, herding rabbits inward to a stake enclosure. As the human noose tightened, rabbits hopped around madly, sniffing the air, stumbling over each other. The clubs smashed heads. The bats crushed rib cages. Blood splattered, teeth were knocked out, hair was matted and reddened. The rabbits panicked, screamed. It took most of an afternoon to crush several thousand rabbits. Their bodies were left in a bloodied heap at the center of the field. Somebody strung up a few hundred of them and took a picture."

The same homesteaders with whom we come to sympathize are, of course, directly responsible for the environmental disaster that causes them such suffering. The same government that was slow to heed warnings about the dangers of soil erosion played a large part in healing the prairie through federal soil conservation programs.

Egan is not heavy-handed with the lessons to be drawn from this story. But in an age of global climate change, it's impossible to relive the Dust Bowl without wondering whether we learned enough from that episode, and whether we are, like those long ago sodbusters, headed for a future we can't quite imagine.

Emma Brown is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, Calif.

**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2007 issue.