The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book is heartbreaking to read, but what a reading experience it gave me. First, a disclaimer, I am a proud Okie, 4th generation, great-grandson of a man who settled near the part of Oklahoma called "the Dust Bowl." My father witnessed the "Black Sunday" dust storm of Palm Sunday, April 14, 1935 so vividly described in Egan's marvelous book.
The book is a history of a time and a people whose lives and deeds still affect me as an Okie and the nation as people of the land. In it, Eagan describes in detail the hows and whys of the Dust Bowl, how the land was emptied of the Indians and the bison, how the native grasses that had kept the Southern Plains in place for thousands of years was stripped away in less than a decade. All the while, the "nesters" as Eagan terms the inhabitants of the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandle, southeastern Colorado, southwestern Kansas, and other places thought that they would quickly make their fortunes farming what had not long before termed "the Great American Desert."
At first, all went as planned as during the 1910s and 20s, high prices, at first spurred by the Great War, and then by the 20s boom times encouraged farmers to plant bigger and bigger fields. Along with the high prices coincidently occured some years of plentiful rain.
Then came the Depression, drought, and despair as fields dried up, crops died, and farmers went bankrupt. Even though there was nothing to hang on to, many chose to do so, joining "Last Man" clubs and pledging themselves to hang on "till Hell freezes over" and then to "skate on the ice." Most had nothing to go to and tried to hang on to their homes rather than join the trek to California and other places. They chose voluntary poverty with a home than without one.
The debate over whether the government should do anything to help the farmers in need mirrors much of the debate that has taken place during our own "Great Recession." (One aspect of this book is to make me realize that our recession pales in comparison to their depression.) Pres. Hoover refused to intervene, choosing instead to let the "invisible hand of the market" to root out life's "winners and losers." Roosevelt instead commission a man by the name of Hugh Bennett to study the problem and take action. The result was thousands of Soil Conservation districts and some national grasslands that exist to this day. In Egan's words, "The only grassroots New Deal project still in existence."
I would encourage all my fellow Oklahomans, West Texans, Eastern Coloradoans to read this book. Ken Burns has made it the basis for a PBS special on the Dust Bowl that I am eager to see. Warning, you can't read this book and not be affected by it. But, for your own sake, read it.
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