The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan
If you think the “Grapes of Wrath” was depressing, try “The Worst Hard Time”, the story of the great dust bowl disaster of the 1930s. Unlike the Joads who escaped Oklahoma for California during this period, many of the homesteaders in the Texas/Oklahoma panhandle stayed and Timothy Egan tells their story. It is a history book told in the form of a novel and chronicles several families who first came to the area as homesteaders and remained through one of the worst environmental disasters ever.
Egan is not shy about blaming the government for giving away the prairie land that was once the home of Native Americans and buffalo only to have it “destroyed” by farmers. The homesteaders plowed under millions of acres of grassland and planted crops – mostly wheat – that after a few profitable years withered and died in the drought of the 1930s. Without the prairie grasses to hold the soil down, huge dust storms blew the soil away throughout the thirties. FDR finally provided some assistance to the farmers who lost everything and engaged the best scientists of the time to help conserve the land for the future. There were a few successes but the efforts were mostly futile and millions of acres of land are still dead today.
I found Mr. Egan’s technique of trying to follow a number of families over this period somewhat confusing and as the book got more and more depressing, I felt like it was suffocating me as the dust did to the homesteaders. I also thought that my background as an American History major and having read Steinbeck’s novel that I knew a fair amount about this period. I still learned a lot. While there is no happy ending, I found the book’s focus on the scientific aspects of the Dust Bowl period fascinating. I suspect, that because it is a non-fiction account that doesn’t read like one, this book has replaced “The Grapes of Wrath” in many classrooms. If you are interested in Modern American history, this book offers an important glimpse into the 1930s in a much more palatable way then a straight history book. It succeeds in answering not just the “what” but the “why” of history and one wonders if it is a look into our future with the impact of climate change.