The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan is a National Book Award winner and it deserves it.
Imagine you are a farmer in the Oklahoma panhandle in 1918. You have lived the American dream. You started out in a sod dug out, broke the soil with a mule, planted crops, sweated and prospered. With the help of your wife and children you have carved out a decent life in this remote area. You have been able to move from the dugout to a modest frame house. Things are looking up. The world-wide demands for wheat during World War I present an opportunity to make you rich if you plant enough...and you do. By the mid 20's you have mechanical farm equipment, electric lights, a car and a piano. This is like printing money. Plow more land, plant more wheat, get more money.
The stock market crash in 1929 can't hurt the relatively self sufficient farmer. That stuff is for city slickers. Even when prices for wheat tank all you have to do is plant more to make up for low prices.
Then Nature turns on you. In the period of just two years your life has turned to hell. The worst ecological disaster ever to hit the United States is your life. Hurricanes of dirt happen on a monthly, no weekly basis. Temperatures soar and plunge to extremes. The only way to live inside your house is to seal all the windows and doors with tape and then cover the openings with sheets. Still the dust penetrates everything and requires you to “dig out” the insides of the house several times a day. Tarantulas, scorpions, centipedes, black widow spiders all seeking shelter from nature gone crazy, invade you home making it a dangerous place. Your children die of “dust pneumonia”, a form of silicosis from breathing dust laden air.
Your once lush farm now looks like the Sahara desert. You lose all your equipment to the bank. Most of your farm animals die from malnutrition or because they ingest so much dirt in the storms that it kills them. The horses resort to chewing on fence posts to try and survive.
Maybe the lucky ones are the ones that lose their land too and are forced to move out. Those that remain endure this for ten long years.
This is their story. This is the story of thousands of farmers and town dwellers alike in Southeastern Colorado, Southwestern Kansas and the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas. This is the story of the Dust Bowl. This is the incredible story of a natural disaster on top of the man made disaster of The Great Depression.
Timothy Egan does a magnificent job in telling the story of individuals and families that struggle during this period. The book reads more like a novel than history. It's a dark novel but it's particularly apropos today.
For me it was on one hand depressing. It's a tough story. On the other hand, I marveled at what the human flesh and spirit can endure. I wake up this morning thankful that I live the plush life that I do and wonder if I could match the deeds of these intrepid people. It also stirs caution in me. Man's quest for financial gain can be a ruinous thing. The old adage is still true. “It can always get worse.”
This book is a worthy read. It will make you feel both bad and good. I heartily recommend it.
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