Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

Few Americans know much about the Dust Bowl of the 30's, despite the fact, that arguably, it's the worst disaster in the nation's history.

"Throughout the Great Plains, a visitor passes more nothing than something. Or so it seems." (from the book's introduction)

Egan does a remarkable job of putting the reader right in the midst of the absolute horror that people living in much of the Great Plains during the 30's experienced. Encouraged by both local and national governments to settle, plow, and build, thousands of people flocked to what was billed as a new Eden of sorts.

By plowing up the native prairie grasses, after the Bison had been eradicated, the stage was set for an inevitable environmental and human disaster. Other writers have blamed the Dust Bowl on a decades long drought. While the fact of the drought is true, the implication that long droughts are uncommon on the plains is not.

The book is composed primarily of individual stories by people that were there. It would get so dark during a dust storm that people would literally get lost and die a few feet from their homes. Cattle died by the thousands from having their lungs full of talcum like dust. The static electricity generated by the storms not only presented dangers from severe electrical shock, it was so intense that automobiles would stop running. People, including many children, died by the thousands of lung diseases. One senses from reading story after story the utter hopelessness; of the inescapable and constant wind, filth, and driving dust. On the occasions that it did rain, it literally rained mud.

The Dust Bowl drained everything from the horrified people trapped there. With no crops, money, cattle, no water, unable to maintain any semblance of cleanliness, life was as desolate for the plains dwellers as anyone on earth.

The storms carried the dust all the way East, and darkened the skies of cities like New York and Washington. The government did respond, in part by forming the Soil Conservation Agency, which is still in existence.

I think the book is interesting on several levels. First, historically, it's a part of the American story that most of us know little about. Second, it's a good lesson about the inevitable folly of attempting to use land for purposes for which it's unsuited.

The book is almost depressing, and the stories are somehow, antithetical to what we consider the history of the pioneers that settled the American plains. However, since Egan primarily paints the times through the lenses of those who were there, it's also an important story. As much a part of our history as Lewis and Clark.

It's a great book title.. it was indeed the worst hard time.

One Second After by William Forstchen

In case you needed something else to worry about, here is a terrific, fact based, adventure novel, which I predict will become a movie. Set in the small town of Black Mountain, NC; the story is about an Electro Magnetec Pulse attack on the United States, and the ensuing aftermath, which starts one second after the attack. The primary character is John Matherson, a retired Army widower, and devoted father. The story is told, more or less, from Matherson's perspective, although it's not told in the first person. Matherson is presented as a good, albeit imperfect man, thrust into a leadership role that he neither anticipated nor wanted. In this role, he becomes sort of an everyman facing the new realities that started with the EMP attack.

Almost all of the story is local. Forstchen presents a thought provoking incident in which the town leaders learn that the president of the United States has likely been killed. Embroiled in their own struggles to survive, the townsmen give it little thought. Their world has been reduced to the town and its surroundings. What is happening in a now very far away and disconnected Washington DC has little or no impact on their lives.

The forward is written by former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, and the afterward is written by US Navy Captain Bill Sanders. Although this is a novel, both Gingrich and Sanders attest to its feasibility, and to the vulnerability of the US infrastructure to just such an attack. The Compton Effect is explained; which briefly, is how a high altitude nuclear explosion can generate a pulse of sufficient amplitude and duration to significantly damage electrical and electronic circuitry. One of the more frightening revelations, is that it takes neither a particularly sophisticated targeting system, nor an especially sophisticated nuclear device to perform an attack of this nature. For all the techie types the forward and afterward alone are worth the read. For everyone, One Second After is an exciting novel.

Life in the small idyllic town of Black Mountain is something out of a Norman Rockwell painting; small town Americana all the way. And then the attack comes out of the blue. At first, it appears very benign. The power goes out, and cars stop running. Then people gradually become aware that virtually nothing electronic or electrical is working.

Forstchen does a wonderful job of painting a picture of how truly fragile our connected culture and society really is. The people of Black Mountain, along with the rest of the country, are suddenly thrust into a 19th century culture for which they are ill-equipped to live. Rampant disease, starvation, and anarchy are suddenly not just something that third world countries deal with, it's the way of life in the United States. Ethical questions, such as whether to share scarce food and medicine with the thousands trapped on nearby Interstate 40, are dealt with by people that never imagined dealing with such questions. Unlike hurricanes, earthquakes, or other natural disasters, no help is coming to Black Mountain, because the entire United States is in the same shape or worse. The people of the town must face the reality that this is now the culture for years, not weeks.

It's an exciting and sobering story. A few nights ago, we had a power outage, and I found myself almost automatically checking my cell phone to be sure it was still working. Anyone reading this novel, and taking the time (and I recommend this) to read both the forward and afterward will find themselves questioning their own dependence on the fragile fabric of American society.

As I said at the start.. just in case you needed something else to worry about!