"The dust storms that terrorized America's High Plains in the darkest years of the Depression were like nothing ever seen before or since, and the stories of the people that held on have never been fully told. Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist and author Timothy Egan follows a half-dozen families and their communities through the rise and fall of the region, going from sod homes to new framed houses to huddling in basements with the windows sealed by damp sheets in a futile effort to keep the dust out. He follows their desperate attempts to carry on through blinding black blizzards, crop failure, and the deaths of loved ones. Drawing on the voices of those who stayed and survived - those who, now in their eighties and nineties, will soon carry their memories to the grave - Egan tells a story of endurance and heroism against the backdrop of the Great Depression."
Racing at 50 miles an hour, the Dust Bowl storms of the 1930's blasted paint off buildings; soil crushed trees, dented cars and drifted into 50-foot dunes. Tsunamis of grasshoppers devoured anything that drought, hail and tornadoes had spared. To the settlers, "it seemed on many days as if a curtain were being drawn across a vast stage at world's end." Families couldn't huddle together for warmth or love: the static electricity would knock them down. Children died of dust pneumonia, and livestock suffocated on dirt, their insides packed with soil. Women hung wet sheets in windows, taped doors and stuffed cracks with rags. None of this really worked. Housecleaning, in this era, was performed with a shovel.
These are the questions posed by Timothy Egan as Franklin Roosevelt arrives in 1938 for his only visit to the almost decade old Dust Bowl. FDR will go on to concentrate on other problems with the dawning of World War II, but the Dust Bowl is there to stay. I learned more about this time in our country’s history from Egan’s book than I thought possible. The way he told the story was gut-wrenching and heart-breaking and maddening. The fact that it was a man-made tragedy only compounded the misery.
Egan traces the history of the southern plains back to the 1500’s when Coronado and the Spanish conquistadors explored the American southwest to the present day, where traces of the worst years are still in evidence. This is all American history stuff. You could find text books with all this information included. What makes this book so extraordinary is the way in which it’s told. Egan masterfully traces the roots of several Dust Bowl families, explains painfully how the families came to be there, the hardships endured, the consequences suffered, and the final outcomes. Painful, sorrowful, agonizing stuff told in a way that you can feel their pain. It’s these individual stories that bring the book to life. This is definitely non-fiction that reads like fiction. Egan successfully places the reader right there, in the midst of the Dust Bowl. You can taste the dirt in your mouth, feel the grit in your teeth, rub your eyes until they’re red; he makes it that real.
The author wipes away any misconception that the Dust Bowl was strictly a freak of nature. He delineates the steps that led to the conversion of the thriving grasslands of the previous centuries to the resultant Dust Bowl. The greed of individuals, the ineptness of the federal government, the return of the drought that had always been a part of the cyclical weather pattern, and the Depression of the thirties all contribute to the conditions of the Dust Bowl.
This is a book of our country’s history that is not to be missed. Highly recommended.
This is a document on the Great Depression, which began in the fall of ‘29 and persistently lingered for the next decade, leaving a wake of destruction, both on the land and on the flesh. Yes, the nation suffered, but the unfortunate people living in the country’s mid-section, the Dust Bowl, were plagued with one catastrophe after another. They used snow-plows on the roads to remove the drifting dirt. Folks wore burlap sacking and watched their cattle slowly suffocate. People ate ground up tumbleweed and woke in the mornings to find their babies covered in dust.
What works about this book, keeping it from being flat-out depressing, is that the author puts a human face on these events. He follows several families, as they deal with these difficult times and yes you feel their pain but you also witness an amazing will to survive.
Sure, Steinbeck covered a portion of this in the brilliant “Grapes of Wrath” but that was just a fragment, this is the real deal. Highly recommended!
Egan does a great job explaining the background to the
The "boom years" followed, with World War I creating a huge demand for wheat that led to the prairie grass that had been there for ages being ripped out of the ground. The 1920s were unusually wet and by the summer of 1929, there was actually a food surplus which caused the farmers to plow more land and plant more wheat just to keep even financially. Unfortunately, the plow broke the land just as the Depression ushered in the "bust years" and a drought that would last for almost 8 years.
The "dust years" were incredible to read about. "Men avoided shaking hands with each other because the static electricity was so great it could knock a person down." Every car dragged a metal chain to ground the static. (p. 153) People got dust pneumonia, which was often fatal, and a new type of mental illness developed--people driven mad by dust. The worst "duster" took place on April 14, 1935 ("Black Sunday"). It was estimated to be 200 miles wide with winds of 65 mph and was like a "wall of muddy water"--"a fury that has never been duplicated." (p. 221) "The land convulsed in a way that had never been seen before, and it did so at a time when one out of four adults was out of work." (p. 2) The government helped save the day by re-grassing the prairie and eventually the rain returned but the "High Plains never fully recovered from the Dust Bowl." (p. 309)
This is a great book about an epic environmental disaster and a cautionary tale about man's attempts to change nature. I can see why it got the National Book Award in 2006. 5 stars.
The Worst Hard Time
" At its peak, the Dust Bowl covered one hundred million acres....More than a quarter-million people fled the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. Looking around now, it may seem that most people just hurried through the southern plains or left in horror. Not true. John Steinbeck told part of the story, about getting out, moving somewhere green. Those were the Exodusters. But Steinbeck's exiles were from eastern Oklahoma, near Arkansas - mostly tenant farmers ruined by the collapse of the economy. ...Not much was heard about the people who stayed behind, for lack of money or lack of sense, the people who hunkered down out of loyalty or stubbornness, who believed in tomorrow because it was all they had in the bank. Yet most people living in the center of the Dust Bowl, about two thirds of the population in 1930, never left during that hard decade."
In the 1930s, the American prairie was repeatedly subjected
The explorer Stephen Long wrote about the Great Plains, "I do not hesitate in giving the opinion that it is almost wholly uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence." Nevertheless, after the US government ousted the Native Americans from their lands, a syndicate sought to make a buck by offering cheap land and promises of prosperity. They distributed attractive brochures across the eastern part of the country, and to immigrants at major entry points. The people came, and they farmed. But agricultural success was short-lived. Extensive farming and over-plowing, coupled with drought, weakened the soil system and sent it blowing up into the air. As the dust storms became a daily occurrence, along came the Depression, and by 1940 the Great Plains were a very different place indeed.
Timothy Egan tells the story of the dust bowl through the lives of those who survived life on the plains during that time. These survivors were still living, and his direct access resulted in a vivid, realistic, and very human portrait of this period in American history. His accounts of dust storms are real page turners -- narrative non-fiction at its best. Egan had access to historical records too, of course. Don Hartwell's diary was one of the most moving parts of this book, recounting the decline of his farm, his livelihood, and his community in spare sentences, like these from 1939:
I have felt lost lately -- not knowing where to turn or what to do. In fact, if one hasn't 'got' anything, there is not much he can do.
The same clear, glaring sky & vicious blaze killing sun. Cane is about dead, corn is being damaged; it will soon be destroyed. Those who coined the phrase 'There's no place like Nebraska' wrote better than they thought. In Nebraska, you don't have to die to go to hell.
There are no dances here anymore -- nothing but silence, emptiness, 'respectability.'
It's positively heart-breaking, and with growing concern about climate change today, I couldn't help but wonder if humankind is heading down a similar path. Have we learned from past mistakes? It gives one pause.
It reads like the best fiction. Stories of the people who settled the grasslands in the late 1800's are gripping. The government promised land for everyone. Their high hopes of breaking farmland that could sustain their families were palpable. It was all going to be so good. That is,
Egan paints a picture of the dust storms that ravaged the plains so well. These "dusters" came and went regularly for the best part of the decade, and were present in peoples lives for 150 days a year some years. During the storms people hunkered down inside with dampened towels over their faces. Doors and windows were sealed as best they could be with cloth, but dust still coated everything. Animals outside died with eyes crusted open and guts full of grit. Sand dunes formed and covered fences and eventually sheds and houses too. Schools closed and people fled before they succumbed to "Dust Pneumonia", a slow painful condition caused by the ingestion of dirt. Farming was now subsistence only. And you were lucky if you could manage even that.
Reading all this made me angry. Angry that such blatant mismanagement occurred all in the name of profit. And in the years since, of course this kind of "profit before all else" mentality has grown.
"The subsidy system that was started in the New Deal.......has become something entirely different: a payoff to corporate farms growing crops that are already in oversupply, pushing small operators out of business. Some farms get as much as $360,000 a year in subsidies. The money has got almost nothing to do with keeping people on the land or feeding the average American."
This book gives excellent context if you are interested in reading any of John Steinbecks books that are set in this time or place. It is a fantastic history of the settlement of the plains and gives real life to the facts,figures and the well-used title, the Dust Bowl.
If the language seems extreme, it’s actually an understatement. There’s no exaggeration. In fact, I know of no way to convey adequately the magnitude of the disaster.
Egan uses statistics sparingly and effectively. But the real impact comes from the stories of the survivors, those who settled the High Plains--what would later become known as the Dust Bowl--in the years right after WWI. Cowboy Bam White, his wife and three kids, following along behind starving horses, finally forced to stop and settle in Dalhart, Texas in the Panhandle, when too many horses died to pull their wagon. The Lucas family, who settled in Boise City, Oklahoma, a town created by land fraud in the middle of No Man’s Land. The Volga Germans, fleeing from conscription into Russia’s army, bringing with them the precious seeds of their hard winter wheat. The Osteens, the Folkers, Doc Dawson, others. They settled on land that was never meant by climate to be farmed--western Kansas, southwestern Nebraska, southeastern Colorado, the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles. Lured by the promise of cheap land, the last left in the US, and what were artificially high prices for wheat, they came to a land that experiences cycles of drought and wet--and they came during a period of years of unusually high rainfall, enough to for wheat. They tore up the the greatest expanse of natural grassland on the continent with the plow, later aided enormously by the introduction of mechanized farm machinery, and sowed wheat. In a few years, families went from living in dugouts cut into the soil to clapboard houses, with pianos, washing machines, and Model T Fords.
First came the Depression, when prices for wheat plummeted and farmers watched their wheat rot by the railroad stations. Many of those who answered the lure of advertisements for land were what was called “suitcase farmers”--salesmen, teachers, mechanics--others, who had no experience in farming and who were immediately discouraged by the years of desperation following the crash of ’29. They literally just walked away from the land--leaving it bare.
Then came the drought, which would last 8 years. And with it, from the ever present winds, the dusters, the “black blizzards.” At first, people thought it was a temporary phenomenon. But by the third year, the dusters increased in number and intensity as tons of topsoil blew across the plains. The farmers‘ situation grew from serious to desperate. The scenes make the whole genre of horror movies and books pale by comparison: trees dying, cattle dying with their eyes frozen open by the dust, crops burned by static electricity, cows dying of of starvation because their stomachs were packed full of dirt. Children and babies dying of dust pneumonia, coughing and crying, with broken ribs from coughing. Otherwise healthy young men dying of silicosis, a disease that usually takes at leas 15-20 years to develop, but with the high silicon content of the soil and the fact that nothing could really keep out the very fine dust particles, killed people within three years. The dusters came on so suddenly, driven by 40 mile per hour and greater winds, that if you got caught outside, you were instantaneously enveloped in blackness--you couldn't see--children died of suffocation just a few yards away from their homes. One terrible dust storm--15,000 feet high and hundreds of miles wide--rode a temporary system of winds straight to the East Coast, where it dumped tons of topsoil on Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York, even going out to the Atlantic Ocean.
The photographs of the land taken at that time, the pictures of the black blizzards, and especially those of Black Sunday, are beyond my ability to describe fear and horror.
Egan describes well the indifference of the Hoover Administration and the efforts of the Roosevelt Administration to pin down the soil through reseeding with native and other grasses,and Roosevelt’s dream--the planting of hundreds of thousands of trees by the CCC to form windbreaks between which the land could be farmed. The painfully slow progress and hard-earned success. Only to have farmers, in the 40s when grain prices shot up, tear out the trees to plant a few more acres of wheat, able to so so because of tapping into the vast Ogallala Aquifer of water that lay underneath the High Plains. The aquifer is being drained at a rate 8 times faster than the water can be replenished; given that it provides the water for 30% of current irrigation in the US, the stage is being set for the next act in the worst ecological disaster the US has ever known. The first time was through ignorance; this time, greed and stupidity rule.
But nothing is as dramatic as the stories of those families who stayed--either through a bond with the land or because they were unable to leave. At the end of he book, Egan includes entries from the diary of Don Hartwell who lived in Inavale,Nebraska ; it is heartrending. The bank took Hartwell’s farm in late 1938, land that the family had owned since 1909. Hartwell ended his diary with the following poem, written by a woman, Eleanor Chaffee:
We had a crystal moment
Snatched from the hands of time,
A golden,singing moment
Made for love and rhyme.
What if it shattered in our hands
As crystal moments must?
Better than earthen hours
Changing to lifeless dust.
I also found too many parallels to today than I'd like to admit from the disregard for environment stewardship of the land, to the rapacious bankers, the wrong-headed civic boosterism and the con men who preyed on the lives of the defeated residents of this sad, sad land.
This is a cautionary tale, and it's questionable based on the grazing & agricultural practices in use in the plains today, whether or not anyone has learned the lessons of the Dust Bowl days.
The author has done an incredible amount of research and interviews, putting together the story of the Dust Bowl storms of the 1930s and their effects not only on the land, but on the economy, on people's health and mental state as well. After children started to die of dust pneumonia, for example, women questioned whether or not they should even be bringing more children into the world. Mothers had to put wet sheets over their babies' cribs, over the windows, and try to shut up any opening in their homes to try to hold back the wind (known as a duster) and its deadly cargo of dust. As things got worse and the economy started to dry up, some people took to canning Russian Thistles, tumbleweeds or yucca just to survive -- any livestock they may have had produced dust-laden milk. The food crop market bottomed out; farmers once prosperous from the earlier wheat boom were now selling off anything they could find just to keep their families fed and to try to hold the bankers at bay trying not to lose their farms. But the worst hard time began with Black Sunday, in April of '35 -- in which a gigantic duster blew and made the air so clogged with dirt that it was often fatal to just be outdoors since a person could choke to death due to the massive amounts of soil & dust in the air. Egan traces this period using the accounts of actual survivors of the time, and asks some hard questions regarding the root causes -- and questions and tries to figure out why people actually stayed rather than leave the miserable conditions. He also examines the government's role in finding solutions for these plains farmers.
The above is just a bare sketch of what's between the covers of this book. I HIGHLY recommend this one to anyone even remotely interested in the topic. I wouldn't necessarily call it an objective work of history (you can really feel the author's emotion throughout the pages), but it is history well worth reading. I wish more people would offer history done like this.
Egan has a wonderful talent for blending anecdotes with information. One that particularly stands out is the story of a woman who worked in a clothing factory. She was sewing a huge pair of overalls for a man who special ordered them and she couldn’t help but wonder about the man who would eventually wear them. She sewed a note inside the overalls for him to find, saying she said she wanted a “real man.” After reading it, the shy farmer decided to write back and eventually the two got married.
Another section talked about the prejudice towards German-Americans during World War I. It’s horrible to see one more example of Americans persecuting a specific race. We seem to have done that consistently throughout our history, with the Japanese-Americans during WWII with Middle Eastern people today, etc. Fear is what drives those actions, but it doesn’t excuse them.
In addition to those stories, there were many more that break your heart. During this time people were traveling from the east coast to the west coast to get “fresh air” to help their health. Instead, they found a dust filled sky that you sometimes couldn’t see through. There were babies who died because their lungs filled with dirt. Cows and other animals starved to death because their stomachs filled with dirt and they couldn’t fit any food in.
The reason I enjoy books like this one is because I feel like I’m learning about a piece of history. There was so much about this period that I didn’t know and it was truly inspiring to see what people can survive.
“The problem with history was that is was written by the survivors, and they usually wrote in the sunshine, on harvest day, from victory stands.”
The book is written in narrative nonfiction style, following the lives of several families in Texas and the the Oklahoma panhandle. It was effective to explore the people who stayed through the decade of dust storms since most people are more familiar with the "Okies" who fled west. Overall, I wished that the book had focused a bit more on the science and ecology of the situation rather than the human interest stories, but it did make for engaging reading.
I was pretty horrified, but not surprised, by the the disaster that humans caused. Much of the area was replanted with grasses, a process that is still being worked on. The discouraging thing is that Egan mentions briefly that the main solution, though, has been to tap into the vast underground aquifer known as Lake Ogallala. It is the nation's largest source of fresh water and it's being drawn down 8 times faster than nature can refill it to irrigate these grasslands and the remaining farms. Seems like we could be creating an ecological disaster just as bad as the dust storms in the 30s if we aren't careful.
This book revealed many aspects of the Dust Bowl which I had not known, and gave a personal story to it. I did not know that static electricity could kill a garden. There was a point, about a third of the way through, when I considered quitting on this book. The heartbreak and relentless descriptions of devastation were very depressing, but I decided if those people could live through it, I could listen to it. The author took the storyline of quite a few people and places and wove them together trying to show the bigger picture through the lives of individuals.
The repetition of the dust storms, the devastation, the dryness, and poverty became dreary and difficult to keep track of what year was being spoken of. I wish that the author had spent a bit more time on the recovery efforts and how the area became livable again. It seemed at the end that the author had an agenda of his own to emphasize that people should not be there in that area. I had to wonder when some of the actual journal entries given did not match his description of the devastation. All in all I am glad to have read this, it provided a lot of information in a personal and touching way.
I can barely tolerate driving through the blasted high plains--here's a book detailing those who staked their entire lives there, edging on starvation as deadly dust spears through their houses. It's really a bad dream, a land gone hostile,
This is a read. Rollicking. Narrative. My favorite kind of history: history (real) in a novelistic, embellished format that makes it compelling, enveloping. Ardent on its core points of how Americans ravaged history and environment, but never strident or blundering. Sensitive. Individualistic. A wonderful overview (with in-depth chunks) for those, like me, ignorant of this dismal slice of the 20th century.
Highly recommended even for those who sometimes have trouble getting through history.
Egan begins by introducing the reader to assorted characters who
The Depression and poverty completely changed the culture: from profligate spending of the Gilded Age to hoarding and mistrust of the banking system. It will be fascinating to see if something similar results from the current economic conditions. It must have been terrifying to struggle in to town to withdraw some money to pay for much needed supplies and food only to discover that the bank has gone out of business, taking with it everything you had. Then to go home and slaughter starving animals because you have no food for them, and then have to decide which of the kids doesn't get to eat. We have no clue today of the suffering engendered by the Depression and Dust Bowl.
My father and mother were born in 1922, but they were fortunate to live in eastern Iowa where my father's father was a dean at a small college. They took many pay cuts and often had to work for nothing, but at least they had some money and a cow and garden. My other grandfather lost his farm in the depression. Around here (in northern Illinois) you could tell which bank had taken over a farm by the color of the barn. One painted the barns white, the other painted them red.
I mean I haven't even read The Grapes of Wrath.
I had heard of the Dust Bowl and understood that Okies was a pejorative term but that was about the extent of my knowledge.
Timothy Egan provides an indepth explanation of the
He describes why those who stayed did so, in a way both convincing and heart-breaking. The decision to leave was difficult but staying often resulted in death.
The Worst Hard Time is a compassionate yet clear-eyed telling of where man's folly can take us.
Not at first. THE WORST HARD TIME starts with the boom years, when settlers first flocked to the prairieland, killed the bison and tilled the tough prairie grass. Egan focuses on a few key towns like Dalhart, Texas and Boise City, Oklahoma, so that he can follow individuals and families as they build homes and stake out farms. He's a beautiful writer, but also a beautiful curator -- he peppers the text with quotes from diaries and newspaper articles and he's not afraid to let those voices take the spotlight and shine.
Things go bad slowly. At first, it's not hard to hear about crops coming in puny or teachers taking worthless promissory notes instead of pay. About sweeping five times a day to keep a house clean or trying to make do without income for just one more year, hoping for rain during the next planting season.
But the conditions don't get better. They get worse. The rain never comes. Dust storms turn deadly. The banks reclaim every item of value, and then they come for the land. Farm animals starve and die, and people have nothing to eat but pickled tumbleweed. Many forget what the sky even looked like, they haven't seen it in so long.
And there's still a long way to go before they'll hit rock bottom.
THE WORST HARD TIME is a slow grind into despair. It's a descent that doesn't bottom out until everyone is dead or gone. It's terrible because there is no winner, no victory at the end for anyone, and the struggle to survive eats up all the happiness and hope and determination of the people who thought they were strong enough to outlast the bad times. The goodness dries out of people, and even at the darkest moment, swindlers and con artists swoop in to take a pauper's last penny.
Egan is a thorough researcher. THE WORST HARD TIME is saturated with details of time and place, but never bogged down by them. He leaves you with a clear picture of everything -- of how the dust bowl happened and why, what the contributing factors were, how it was solved and why it hasn't repeated. But the big picture emerges from the small ones that Egan pieces together with such skill.
I don't know of this is the worst disaster I've ever read about, but there's a dreary, monotonous, degrading quality to it. The only message to take from it are awful ones: struggling for subsistance isn't much of a life, sometimes it's better to give up and quit, grit and determination aren't worth diddly when you're starving.
A good book, but not a cheerful one.
Note on audio recording: DISLIKE. I thought the narrator's tone was too folksy, too on-the-nose, and obscured the beauty of Egan's writing. Also, he spoke too fast, and the quality degraded a LOT if I slowed it down. Read this one on paper.
The Dust Bowl changed the Heartland seemingly in an instant and drove people away, creating despair in the middle of the Great Depression.
The heartbreaking story is told with compassion and humanity, and the stories
This is a cautionary tale of weather and what we do to it, but it's not a climate change polemic. It's a real, honest look at a difficult time in American history.
It is a tough read because of the sad stories, but it's worthwhile. One of my recommended reads.
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This is a stunning history, a story I'd known little about 'til now. Read this book. The parallels of pending environmental disaster between what we did to the earth by agriculture a hundred years ago, and what we do to the earth today, linger quietly and forebodingly in the background of this book.
My history textbooks made little mention of The Dust Bowl and when they did they