Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Book review - The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

I started reading this twice before but always got side-tracked or some other excuse, and put it aside.  So after reading two previous non-fiction books which take place during the same generation.  I decided to tackle Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time.  This work centers on the 1930’s Dust Bowl, where over-plowing and careless use of resources created one of the biggest man-made environmental disasters ever.

In the late 1920’s and early 30’s, people swarmed to the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles, northeast New Mexico, southwest Kansas and southeast Colorado.  The native Americans had been routed from the area (again) and “great American hunters” had decimated the bison almost to extinction.  The path was paved for white farmers to make their way to endless free land, grasslands for miles with no trees in sight.

It seemed like a boon to anyone trying to get rich and establish a huge farm spread.  Then acres of land were being plowed and turned over by the millions.  An area half the size of England had been turned into wheat farms.

It was good while it lasted, maybe two years.  Then the rains stopped and the stock market crashed.  All of a sudden, wheat sold at a fraction of its cost to harvest it.  Bumper crops in Russia and elsewhere helped drive the price down as well.  At the start of the 1930’s, people in the northeast starved while tons of grain rotted on the ground in Oklahoma.

This was just the beginning of the Dust Bowl.  The destruction of the top soil and the hearty grasses that could withstand extremes in weather holding it in place left soil open to the wind and elements.  Egan’s description of the years of drought, frequent sandstorms that blotted out the sun, and the desperation of the people as they watched family members suffer and die from dust pneumonia is heart-wrenching and the reader can almost feel grit between his teeth.

Egan’s book is also a testament to the human spirit, determined to go on, not letting the fury of Mother Nature’s revenge run them out of their homestead.  He took first-hand accounts from the survivors of the Dust Bowl who remember those terrible years as if they were last week.

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