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The Worst Hard Time : The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl

by Timothy Egan, published by 2005-12-14 (Houghton Mifflin)

Buy now from Amazon.com for $28.00
Amazon rating of 4.0 out of 5, Amazon sales rank: 716

Editor's Review:

"The Worst Hard Time is an epic story of blind hope and endurance almost beyond belief; it is also, as Tim Egan has told it, a riveting tale of bumptious charlatans, conmen, and tricksters, environmental arrogance and hubris, political chicanery, and a ruinous ignorance of nature's ways. Egan has reached across the generations and brought us the people who played out the drama in this devastated land, and uses their voices to tell the story as well as it could ever be told."
— Marq de Villiers, author of Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource

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 that 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 eighties and nineties, 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.

Timothy Egan 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, Washington.

"As one who, as a young reporter, survived and reported on the great Dust Bowl disaster, I recommend this book as a dramatic, exciting, and accurate account of that incredible and deadly phenomenon. This is can"t-put-it-down history." —Walter Cronkite

"The Worst Hard Time is wonderful: ribbed like surf, and battering us with a national epic that ranks second only to the Revolution and the Civil War. Egan knows this and convincingly claims recognition for his subject—as we as a country finally accomplished, first with Lewis and Clark, and then for 'the greatest generation,' many of whose members of course were also survivors of the hardships of the Great Depression. This is a banner, heartfelt but informative book, full of energy, research, and compassion." —Edward Hoagland, author of Compass Points: How I Lived

"Here's a terrific true story—who could put it down? Egan humanizes Dust Bowl history by telling the vivid stories of the families who stayed behind. One loves the people and admires Egan's vigor and sympathy." —Annie Dillard, author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

"The American West got lucky when Tim Egan focused his acute powers of observation on its past and present. Egan's remarkable combination of clear analysis and warm empathy anchors his portrait of the women and men who held on to their places—and held on to their souls—through the nearly unimaginable miseries of the Dust Bowl. This book provides the finest mental exercise for people wanting to deepen, broaden, and strengthen their thinking about the relationship of human beings to this earth." —Patricia N. Limerick, author of The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West

Reader Reviews:

An over hyped political/enviromental fluff piece wrapped in the guise of a historical text. No serious thought is given to the historical subect matter, only deftly written jabs at 'uninformed settlers, swindling politicians and failed farm policy.' Pass on Timothy Egan if you are looking for a work of historical value, read if you are easily swayed by hyper, sensationalized, flippant, journalistic writing.
And for crying out loud, Follett and Darrouzett, Texas need to be flipped on your 'map' and "No Man's Land" is the entire Oklahoma panhandle, not just the western portion as your book states. A stunning, eye-opening look at a heartbreaking time in American history. A prolonged time of determination and despair. It was the Great Depression within the Depression. Such a sustained catastrophe, and yet, growing up, we examined so little about this in our history classes in grade school. This should be required reading, from a historical perspective. But more than that, it is an amazingly compelling read. Halfway through the book, you'll be asking yourself, "How can anyone have survived this?" You will be stunned that it keeps getting worse, because you won't be able to imagine anything remotely close to the reality of it. Timothy Egan's "The Worst Hard Time" proffers a look at the Dust Bowl from a slightly different perspective than most Americans are familiar...he tells it from the inside out. This is not a book about the Okies who packed up and moved west. "The Worst Hard Time" puts its focus on citizens of Dalhart, Texas and Boise City, Oklahoma (to name few) and details their struggles to survive years of drought and misery. To Egan's credit, it's a good start.

The author is at his best when he chronicles an overall view of what it was like to live in the Dust Bowl...an area that stretched from the Texas panhandle to southern Nebraska and included portions of six states. He reminds us that the cause of the problems during a decade-long recurrence of "dusters" were largely man-made. The rape of native grasslands through plowing so weakened the soil and existing plants that the land was ripe for storms on the magnitude of which he describes. Egan, as an historian, informs well, although after mentioning several times that the dusters caused terrific amounts of static electricity, (enough to knock down a man) he never gives us a clue as to how or why that electricity accumulated its power.

The problem with this book is that the narrative is as dry as the conditions upon which he comments. The half dozen or so people whom the author settles upon don't seem to win much more than a skirting empathy as one wonders if they really weren't well enough put together to follow their neighbors away. Except for some wonderful diary entries by Don Hartwell of Inavale, Nebraska (who stayed until the bitter end) and a chapter on Black Sunday, Egan misses terrific opportunities to liven up his own work. A storyteller he is not.

There are many surviviors still around from those days on the High Plains. It would be nice to see a book about their experiences told in their own words, as Don Hartwell had done. "The Worst Hard Time" delivers some good information, but unlike the dusters, it never gets off the ground.This account of one of the worst environmental disasters to hit this country, next to the "Andrea Gail' in 1938 is well done but a little dull. Since I was not born before it happened, what I thought was interesting apparently was not what the censor thought, so here we go again. My sister remembered the Depression as she was eleven years older than I and said that even here in Knoxville, Tennessee, we were hit hard. Richard Marius, as a young professor at the University of Tennessee, wrote a fictional account about a drought which took place just out of this area. I read that book and was amazed at the consequences of a long drought and the effect it has on the humans and animals, day without end and no rain in sight. A drought is one thing, but the catastrophe of the Dust Bowl in the places this author focuses on brings home the death and desolation of not only the dustballs swirling around like so much sagebrush, but the devastation caused by the swarms of insects; the grasshoppers would eat a whole field and strip it clear in a short amount of time. I heard a lecture at the History Center of a man who endured the Dust Bowl and the Depression. It was no picnic.

The homesteaders out on the Great Plains were lured into planting wheat, but Kansas was the only place it took hold. The plow-up of the thick grassland, where the buffalo roamed, in the Twenties; thus, the farmers of the High Plains out West "shattered the natural world of that area, not anticipating the possibility of a lingering drought. With no top soil or grass to keep the earth intact, the campaign to plant wheat prompted by the government for gobal consumption proved to be ill-fated and the unsuspecting settlers destroyed the native environment.

The dusters, called 'black blizzards' followed swarms of birds trying to get out of the way of the mile-high wall of dirt. The worst one took place in 1935, but the phenonomen went on for another four years. This book is divided into three sections, from 1901 to 1939. The government had lured inexperienced farmers to that good-for-nothing land which stretched into infinity (lots of space and emptiness on that flatland), who knew nothing of the dangers of tampering with nature. In this area, a group came over from England to be gentlemen famers in a failed project called Rugby. They were educators and intellectuals, as opposed to those in the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, and knew next to nothing about crops, droughts, harvests, and such. They were the precursors to the hippies as they sought to have a communal lifestyle here in East Tennessee. The effects of the Dust Bowl reached this state but not to the extent of those who caused it with long-term consequences which would totally alter their meager lives for the worst. It's a wonder anyone survived, but he found some to interview. If their memories were like the people who survived the Great Hurricane in New England in 1938, part of it is fiction. But, when written by a newspaper reporter, there are always elaborations to make things sound better. This, I think, is one of them. He also wrote THE GOOD RAIN and LASSO THE WIND, leading up to the Dust Bowl which is fairly new -- just out and many have found it already.It is one of the most gut-wrenching books I have ever read. Like an episode of the old TV series "Time Tunnel" author Timothy Egan transports the reader back to the Great Plains in the 1930's. The stories of personal hardship and determination in "The Worst Hard Time" will likely hit you like a ton of bricks. This is a story that needs to be told again and again. As you will learn in "The Worst Hard Time" what would be forever known as the "Dust Bowl" was a largely self-imposed tragedy. It is extremely important that the American people understand just what went wrong with the land in America's mid-section during those tumultuous years and to learn the lessons from this monumental environmental disaster.
Prior to reading "The Worst Hard Time" my knowledge of the calamity known as the "Dust Bowl" was limited to not much more than a passing reference in a high school history book and perhaps a few articles in the newspaper. I simply had no idea of the scope and the magnitude of this tragedy. In "The Worst Hard Time" Timothy Egan introduces us to a half dozen or so families who would settle various parts of this region. These were hardy folks who came to settle in this area from many different places and for a variety of reasons. It was the height of the Great Depression and for most the lure of farming your own tract of land was just too enticing to pass up. For an all too brief time it appeared to be a wise decision. But as the 1930's progressed most of the people who had settled in places like Boise City in the Oklahoma panhandle, Dalhart in Northwestern Texas or Cimmaron County, New Mexico would rue the day they decided to settle there. Something had gone horribly wrong with the land. Most would experience unspeakable hardship over the next several years and lose practically everything. Surely, "The Worst Hard Time" is an apt description of what went on.
Aside from Timothy Egan's exceptionally well-written narrative "The Worst Hard Time" also presents a series of unforgettable photographs that will leave you with an indelible image of the landscape in places like "No Man's Land" and Baca County, Colorado during the height of the "Dust Bowl". These scenes will break your heart and make you wonder how these people were able to cope with such devastation and economic deprivation. It is difficult to comprehend the magnitude of a crisis where millions upon millions of tons of prime topsoil blow away in violent storms. In less than a generation what had been hundreds of millions of acres of prime grasslands had been destroyed, perhaps forever. Discover just who was to blame for this calamity and learn about FDR's ambitious plans to resuscitate the area.
With "The Worst Hard Time" Timothy Egan brings the spectacle of the "Dust Bowl" to the attention of a new generation of Americans. Aside from reacquainting all of us with the who, what, when and where of this unfortunate chapter in American history, Egan reminds of the important environmental lessons that we should have learned from these events. The "Dust Bowl" was an environmental disaster of nearly biblical proportions. And it could happen again. Towards the end of the book Timothy Egan discusses some of highly questionable policies being pursued in the Great Plains even to this day. They seem incredibly foolhardy to me. But judge for yourself. "The Worst Hard Time" is an important book that should find its way into every library in America. This is history at its absolute best. Highly recommended!.

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