02 May 2007

The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan

312 pages, paperback, Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin) 2006.

This is the story of No Man's Land, the dust bowl, Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska in 1935 -- the people who, unlike Steinbeck's Joads, didn't leave for California and the Grapes of Wrath.

The Dust Bowl, the storms that ravaged the High Plains during the Depression, is an event that goes on my imaginary list of "Things They Didn't Teach Me in American History." This was, quite simply, a man-made environmental disaster on a grand scale. Faced as we are with the possibility that our current actions and habits are changing the Earth's climate, this is a sobering story for our times.

Dust storm texas 1935

[Image from Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Dust_Storm_Texas_1935.jpg]

Egan is an entertaining writer, he follows the story of disaster and despair by following individual histories of some of the people who lived through, or didn't live through, these storms and their consequences.

Beginning with the decimation of the Comanche, the killing of the buffalo, and the eventual stripping of the prairie grasses in favor of wheat, Egan shows us how the stage was set for such a tragedy. He exposes the disingenuous boosterism that caused the irresponsible settling of the Plains -- the result of which was the erosion of millions of tons of topsoil by wind.

Egan enumerates the cost in human lives and misery graphically and believably -- this could be a dull, depressing list of grievances and injustices, but instead he uses artful characterizations of the real people involved to bring the time and place to life.

This is good reading for anyone, but I highly recommend it for young Americans. They will have the burden of living with the next man-made disaster on our Planet; they will have the responsibility to try to mitigate it. Perhaps in some small way Egan's work can facilitate this Herculean task.

Search Google with the term "Dust bowl."

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