T.M.’s Book Review: The Worst Hard Time

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, by Timothy Egan © 2006
Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston MA
ISBN 9780-618-34697-4 (Hardback)
Available at your favorite bookseller in paperback and e-book formats.

If you remove the dust jacket on a hardback edition of this book and you see two hard faces staring back at you. They are a man and a woman enduring the drought of the 1930s in what is now known as the Dust Bowl of America. It is also known as the worst manmade environmental disaster in our history. The Dust Bowl is the most significant weather event of the 20th Century.

The drought came as settlers were attempting to grow crops of cotton and wheat in the seemingly endless prairie. They used their metal plows and tractors to break the rich, black soil to plant their seed. Their techniques worked for many years, but the drought took advantage of the deep furrows and desiccated the soil down deep. No crops meant no money. With no societal safety nets, thousands of people had to leave.

The story is told through the eyes of six families and their communities before and after the calamity. The author explains the allure of the region and the impact farmers had on a fragile ecosystem. Going back several centuries, we are told of how the plains Indians lived with the land with minimal impact even in dry years. This was prime grazing land for buffalo before being slaughtered for their hides. The farmers came in and thought they were in charge. They learned a hard lesson.

I have driven through the panhandle of Texas and Oklahoma known as No Man’s Land and it is easy to see why the name is appropriate. My wife describes the area as desolate, and as usual, she is correct. Yet, there are still people choosing this area as their home.

The recent PBS documentary on the Dust Bowl features comments from the author of this book, but only skims the surface of the story. You need to read the book to hear the stories of the people involved. They are tough, heartbreaking, instructional, and inspirational. There are many tips for preppers throughout the book as people describe what they had to do to survive. These folks lived and died in a manmade disaster without FEMA. The military and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) were essentially useless. You cannot shoot a drought, or grow trees without rain. The situation finally triggered a mass migration to California as depicted in The Grapes of Wrath, which is another great read.
The book has several photos built into the narrative helping the story. A good index and thirteen pages of notes fill out a great book on a memorable piece of our history.