The Worst Hard Time, journalist Timothy Egan’s new book, recalls another period of adversity on the southern Plains: the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. In contrast to the recent wildfires, however, the difficulties of that earlier event spanned an entire decade and killed off not merely small towns, but also entire counties in parts of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma. More than a quarter of a million people eventually deserted the region, some moving merely to less hard-hit areas within the affected states, while others trudged westward to the supposed promised land of California, where they hoped to find work in fields and orchards. Their migrations, of course, survive in the writings of novelist John Steinbeck and the iconic images taken by photographer Dorothea Lange.
Unlike Lange and Steinbeck, however, Egan focuses on those who stayed behind, either because of their determination to endure or their utter lack of opportunities elsewhere. Many of them took great pride in their decisions to remain in the Dust Bowl, such as the editor of the local newspaper in Dalhart, Texas, who founded the Last Man Club during the direst years of catastrophe. The organization distributed membership cards that began, “Barring Acts of God or unforeseen personal tragedy or family illness, I pledge myself to be the Last Man to leave this country….” (As it happened, the editor himself wound up abandoning Dalhart in the late 1930s, although he decamped only to Amarillo–some 80 miles to the south–and not, say, to the West Coast). It is precisely Egan’s attention to those who remained when others fled that makes The Worst Hard Time such a welcome addition to the extensive literature about the Dust Bowl.
Although Egan supplies the book with essential context, he builds his story around a handful of central characters, some of whom (or their descendants) he managed to interview. Their narratives bring the disaster vividly to life. There is George Ehrlich, a German from Russia who escaped the tyranny of the czars and suffered through the American anti-German prejudice of World War I only to see his Oklahoma homestead devoured by drought, heat, and blowing dirt. There is Hazel Lucas Shaw, a farmer’s wife living in the no man’s land of the Oklahoma Panhandle, whose burial of her grandmother and infant daughter–both dead from dust pneumonia–coincided with Black Sunday (April 14, 1935), quite literally the darkest day of the Dust Bowl. And there is Bam White, a beleaguered farmer who became the face of the tragedy when he accepted $25 (as much as he could make in two months) from filmmaker Pare Lorentz to drag a horse-drawn plow across his devastated fields. That featured sequence from “The Plow That Broke the Plains,” a government-sponsored documentary, served notice of the heartland’s desperation, though White’s neighbors later ostracized him for publicizing their misery.
Considering Egan’s expertise as an environmental writer, it comes as no surprise that–in addition to his human cast–he highlights the natural world as a critical actor in the story. Describing the Plains on the eve of their ruin, he writes: “The land would not die an easy death. Fields were bare, scraped to hardpan in some places, heaving in others.” Such attentiveness is essential, for the Dust Bowl’s key lesson taught that the earth does indeed have its limits, and those who push beyond them do so at their peril. In Egan’s capable hands, swirling storms of topsoil become memorable characters– menacing, unpredictable, and relentless. Likewise, swarms of grasshoppers descending upon a rare patch of carefully-cultivated vegetation conjure nightmarish images of an advancing army. Even his descriptions of less dramatic features of the Great Plains environment–such as shelterbelts (rows of trees meant to shield crops from the wind) or underground aquifers–create vibrant images for the reader.
For all its merits, The Worst Hard Time has its shortcomings, some of them substantial. First, Egan’s attempts to capture the local idiom in his own narrative voice are distracting in the extreme. Instead of explaining that Plains farmers came to recognize the problems with their methods of cultivation, Egan writes they “got religion.” Similarly, wealthy ranchers are not cattlemen, but rather “fancy-pantsers.” And as for the growing rural-urban divide of the Jazz Age, Egan notes that “[t]he country had one foot in the fields, one foot in a bathtub of gin in the city.” For those who live in the heartland (and probably even for those who do not), such affectations seem awkward and condescending, however well-intentioned the author might be (and from reading his acknowledgements, there is no doubting Egan’s warmth and sincerity). Mercifully, Egan abandons this tic about a third of the way into the book.
Furthermore, it is a losing proposition to describe the region in hyperbole, as Egan is inclined to do, starting with the title itself. There is no doubting the horrors of the Dust Bowl–Egan and others have made that abundantly clear–but catastrophes have served as a defining aspect of life on the Plains since the era of white settlement began in earnest after 1862. For instance, the clouds of Rocky Mountain locusts that swept the continent’s midsection annually from 1873-1877 reduced thousands of residents of Nebraska, among other states, to the brink of starvation. In more recent times, the ascendancy of industrial agriculture has driven people off the land in ever-growing numbers, forcing schools to close and residents to migrate to the cities, so some counties now have fewer residents than at any point in the last 100 years. Put simply, life has never been easy here, so to set one era above the others as “the worst hard time” is as troublesome as elevating the soldiers of one particular war to the status of “the greatest generation.”
Most significantly, Egan’s reluctance to extend at least some of the blame for the disaster to the small farmers themselves is problematic. To be sure, it is proper to excoriate (as Egan does) the government boosters who lured homesteaders to the southern Plains on false premises, and the federal officials who responded with aching slowness to the unfolding catastrophe. However, we know from other writers–chief among them the historian Donald Worster–that a key factor in the creation of the Dust Bowl was the attitude of the cultivators, who treated the land with an unmistakable aggression (see: “sodbusting”) in their quest to wring profit from the soil. While farmers may have seen few economic alternatives, they could not plead ignorance: As Egan himself notes, area cowboys and native peoples had insisted for decades that the land was fit for grazing, not farming.
Notwithstanding these misgivings, The Worst Hard Time is highly worthwhile. Egan helps correct the notion that most residents fled the Dust Bowl –in fact, the overwhelming majority stayed put–and in the process he crafts a moving, eloquent testimony to human suffering and perseverance. With the debate about the future of post-Katrina New Orleans now beginning, we would do well to keep in mind that we can manipulate the natural world for only so long before it rises in revolt.
Andrew R. Graybill teaches history at the University of Nebraska. His book comparing the Texas Rangers and Canada’s North-West Mounted Police is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press.