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.

1 comment:

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