This is the review for my January 2008 entry to the Book A Month Challenge:
The Worst Hard Time (2005) by Timothy Egan tells “The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.” Rooted in oral history, the book reads like an epic novel although it is all true no matter how unearthly it may sound (and when I say unearthly I don’t mean it as a bad pun). There is grit in Egan’s writing style that reflects the grit of the dust storms and the grit of the people determined to remain on the land that betrayed them.
Or did they betray the land, as many outsiders portray the over-farming that preceded the Dust Bowl as the root cause of this environmental disaster. Pioneers in America’s last frontier managed to make the largest wheat crop in history from the dry land, although they saw no benefit from it as the price of wheat plummeted and the grains rotted at train depots and in the fields. In the ensuing years parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado would turn into vast oceans of shifting dust.
There is a lot of repetition in The Worst Hard Time although this too is an effective writing device. The repetition reflects the horror of the dust storms returning day after day, month after month, and year after year. Some storms even carried the dust of the Plains to the big cities on the East Coast and out to sea. The people of the Dust Bowl also dealt with static electricity that could knock a man over, searing heat, and biblical plagues of biting insects, grasshoppers (who generally ate whatever crop they might grow), and rabbits (who became the subject of Sunday clubbings).
Egan introduces the reader to a fascinating cross-section of characters. The old cowboy attached to the land. The doctor who moved to the Plains for his health and ends up having to provide free care to all the people suffering in the unhealthiest environment on Earth. The mother who loses her baby to dust pneumonia. The cornhusker who keeps a diary of short but poignant entries that document the Apocalypse.
This excellent historical work is an early candidate for my favorite books read in 2008.
The full film The Plow that Broke the Plains: