Book Review: The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan


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.

Related Links:

NPR: Dust Bowl Stories from ‘The Worst Hard Time’

The American Experience

The Library of Congress: American Memory

The full film The Plow that Broke the Plains:

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

  1. Why did you omit North Dakota…there were more dust storms and lost crops there that you haven’t even mentioned? Why??

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  2. I notice a trend when I write book reviews is that someone will comment “why did you write this?” or “why did you leave out this?” I can only write about the content of the books themselves and the author of this book made no mention of North Dakota. If you’d like to know why he made that omission I suggest writing to Timothy Egan care of Houghton Mifflin:

    Timothy Egan
    c/o Houghton Mifflin Company, Trade Division,
    Adult Editorial, 8th Floor
    222 Berkeley Street
    Boston, MA 02116-3764

    I also encourage you to read the book as it includes first-hand stories of the Dust Bowl from letters and oral histories of people in some of the communities it hit.

    Good luck!

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  3. North Dakota was left out because it was not considered to be in the hardest hit region of the Dust Bowl. The core barley made it into South Dakota.

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