366 of 382 people found the following review helpful
Beyond a doubt, this was the best of the books I read during this past year. Having had many family members who were caught up in this, one of the worst natural (actually it seems it was more man made than natural) disasters to strike our country, made this work of even more interest to me. Mr. Eagan has not only given us a wonderful account of this era in our nations history, he has made it come alive through his exceptional story telling abilities. This is not a dry (no pun intended), academic history of the great depression. Rather it is a history of a group of people who lived through the worst of it, the great dust bowl at the center of our country. These are real people and the author treats them as such. Very few meaningless statistics mar the story line, few government reports are offered or cited to reduce the human suffering to neatly typed pieces of paper. As you read this book, you come to realize that these people are just like you and me. You read and ponder "what if?" The book is quite readable, quite informative and one that I will no doubt give a reread to in the near future. Recommend this one highly!
150 of 156 people found the following review helpful
on June 11, 2007
I was raised by German immigrants much like the folks Egan describes in this book. When I was a teenager I was in part frustrated and perplexed by the scars the Depression and Dust Bowl left on them and our household 40 years after it ended. They were frugal people in the extreme. They made a sport of seeing how much money they could put aside with each paycheck. They never, ever spent money on vacations or in movie theaters. Spending money to eat in a restaurant was a huge deal to these people. Grandma insisted on making all of my clothes until I got a job to buy store bought jeans and t-shirts. Grandpa groused mightily if I wanted anything that cost more than $5. They horded everything from nails (new and used) to toilet paper to toothpaste. For the three of us Grandpa put in a massive kitchen garden in the spring, and Grandma canned enough fruits and vegetables to feed the 9th Calvary every autumn.
Whenever I'd tease them about their ways, I'd get a stern look in return and a lecture about living through the Depression in the Dust Bowl. They'd tell me time and again how lucky I was not to have gone through it, and each time my child self would shrug as if to say, "Whatever."
I didn't really "get" the Dust Bowl or the Depression until I read this book. We're all lucky not to have gone through what these folks did. Imagine having to decide which of your children will get to eat dinner. Imagine being forced to slaughter your starving farm animals because there is absolutely nothing left to feed them. Imagine watching your brothers and sisters slowly choke to death on dust. Imagine going to the ATM for some cash to discover that your bank went out of business yesterday, taking all of your savings and investments with it, and there's nothing you can do to get even a fraction of your money back. Imagine having to abandon your preschoolers to the streets and pray that someone will take them in and feed and cloth them. Imagine holding on to your last quarter for three days before hunger forces you to spend it on a meal, and you have absolutely no idea when or where your next meal is coming from.
Any one of these scenarios would be soul destroying, but all of these things happened to some folks.
My grandparents never really wanted to talk about how they survived the Dust Bowl; they told me a few things, however. Grandpa had to cut the toes out of his only pair a shoes when they grew too small and there was no money to buy a new pair. Grandma lost her youngest brother to an infection because the last doctor had moved out of their town, there was no hospital, and there was no money to pay for medical treatment, anyway. These remembrances came in dribs and drabs; mostly they had an "It's in the past and there's no used in rehashing all those bad times" attitude.
I teared up at times while reading this book, wondering which of the horrors Egan talks about happened to my grandparents. Finally, 20 years into adulthood, I "got" the Depression. I "got" the Dust Bowl.
My Grandma died 20 years ago and my Grandpa in '99. For so many reasons I wish they were still with me, but more than anything else I'd like to tell them that I understand what they went through and that I'm so very sorry it colored the rest of their lives.
164 of 171 people found the following review helpful
on December 25, 2005
2005 has been a banner year for readable histories about natural disasters (see "A Crack in the World : America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906" by Simon Winchester) and natural disasters compounded by a series of catastrophic human errors (see "Curse of the Narrows : The Halifax Disaster of 1917" by Laura MacDonald). Mr Egan's history falls into the latter category with his story of the Dust Bowl during the Depression.
"The Worst Hard Time" traces the horrific consequences of poor farming practices in the Central Plain States during the drought of the 1930's. It is not a dry book about soil samples and weather charts but a living account of the human cost in fighting against tarantulas & seas of grasshoppers eating every plant in their path while struggling against the "duster" storms that blot out the sun. The reader can think of the Dust Bowl storms as the hurricanes of the Plain States. Illustrated with photographs of the poverty of that era, the reader will be shock and angry at the suffering of those farmers who attempted to ride out those storms.
63 of 65 people found the following review helpful
on December 21, 2005
My father Bill Downing, was born on a homestead in Indian territory on April 13th 1906, one of eight children of a dry land farmer and livestock trader who drifted from Iowa to the high plains scratching out a living from virgin grasslands. My mother was born in a dugout close to Delphus switch on the Santa Fe line somewhere near Clovis, New Mexico, Dec. 8th 1910. I was born on July 7th 1935 in Canyon,Texas, three months after Black Sunday. This book came to me like a "ghost from Christmas's past"
When I heard an interview with the author on PBS radio I knew I had been deeply touched by my family heritage. I confess I am a child of the depression and of the dust bowl era.
For me this was a hard book to read but impossible to put down. The stories of the real people and events were at times so imbedded in my heart before I read them that I sometimes had to take time to catch my breath and wash the blow dirt out of my eyes and hair before I could read more.
Timothy Egan did his interviews and research on this historical event very well, and has artfully woven them into a true story of heroism, stubborn persistance, ignorance and individual, governmental and societal greed and incompetence. The combination destroyed the great grasslands of North America and the dreams of millions of families and left a scar on the them both. He has also told the story of those on the farms and in government who asked the questions. "What went wrong?", "Can it be fixed?", and "How do we heal a two-fold disaster?" His window into the government and all levels of politics of the period will inform the reader concerned about government and politics of today. When I remember watching my father drill a well in our back yard with a rope, pully, "A" frame and a sharp pipe, or think of the hours I spent turning the soil for our "Victory garden", I am remembering frontier skills.
The view I enjoyed from the top of our windmill was the 80 acre pasture for our milk cow starting just past our front yard. A half mile away were two old farms with shelter belt trees and buried fence posts and the only flowing creek in many miles. Looking over our cow lot and chicken house behind our house I saw five blocks away West Texas State College.
I started first grade on that campus and graduated from the college sixteen years later. As I walked up the slope to school against blue and brown northers, I vowed to leave that country. when I could. Most of my adult life has been spent where the March winds don't start in January and end in July and you could find water deep enough to play in and trees. That doesn't deminish my love and respect for the people who toughed it out and made a life for them selves. I have never met friendlier more loving and compassionate people than small town panhandle farm folks. I believe that going through the worst hard times killed off some, made some a bit strange, and opened the heart of most. I still like to spend time in the old dust bowl country and then go home before the wing throws another handful of gravel in my face.
140 of 154 people found the following review helpful
on February 15, 2007
This book is both one of the most interesting histories I've read in a long time and one of the more dull books I've read in the last year. The first 150 pages, when Egan sets the Dust Bowl scene and introduces us to the people he will follow throughout the story are fantastic. The pace is quick, the details are very insightful and I learned a lot about why the Dust Bowl happened and just how devestating it was. Egan successfully makes the dust storms that ravaged the Panhandle area as fightening as they must have been for inhabitants and it is very moving just how horrible it was for the residents who loved their homesteads enough to suffer horribly to stay on them. After about 100 pages of reading about several storms and the terrible conditions, however, the book slows a lot. The storms never get less intense and the writing itself doesn't falter, but after a while the reader become immune to the horror and it just becomes boring reading about storm after storm which never seem to change. I'm sure the monotony and misery of it all that lasted for several years is what the unforunate farmers of the Dust Bowl endured, but it is hard to read after a while and not very enjoyable.
All in all, I think all people who are interested in American history should read at least the first part of the book to learn about what happened in middle-America during the Depression and how horrible it was for those not in cities. I would caution, however, that the book gets quite dull after a while and there are long stretches between interesting details.
44 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on November 11, 2006
I finished this extraordinary book and opened it up again and re-read it. The writing is that breathtaking (there were paragraphs I read outloud to friends on the phone). I share most of my books with friends, but this one I refuse to let leave the house--despite promises of a quick return. So the people I tell are buying two copies at a time.
We all know "Grapes of Wrath" and have heard of the Dust Bowl, but never, did I ever realize what really happened through all those years. Thank you, Mr. Egan, for remembering these people, reminding us of our history, and helping put our lives in perspective.
55 of 60 people found the following review helpful
on February 7, 2008
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
The strong suit about Egan's book is its nice, flowing style. It is VERY readable, and--like any good reporter--he always keeps his focus on his audience. I also like his approach (used by Ken Burns with his TV specials) of focusing on a few specific individuals to tell the story--such specificity not only keeps the reader's interest, but it brings his points home with force.
Where the book is weaker is on its overall scholarship and its wide use of what is called "presentism," using modern-day standards to judge folks in the past, no matter if they employed different standards or were ignorant of modern-day farming practices. A glaring example of the former is his over-reliance of quotes from early republic sources (trappers, explorers, ranchers) that warned that the Great Plains was unsuitable for farming. His implied point is that "we were warned," and that voices had been raised against farming this land (See especially chapters one and two). The HUGE problem with this sort of analysis is that the very same people had said the same things about the San Joachin and Central Valleys, all of Eastern Oregon and Washington, and virtually ALL of the land between the Cascade Mountains and the Rockies! In other words, explorers from the wet and humid east had no clue what might be done to the land to make it produce (irrigation, etc.), and there are hugely successful dryland wheat regions ALL over the west! So the bare fact that early folks "warned" that such lands could not be farmed says nothing. Egan also doesn't take self-interest enough into account when using these warning themes: in other words, cattlemen had a strong and vested interest in keeping unplowed land just the way it was, it is HIGHLY doubtful that cattle ranchers were altruistic environmental activists more than they were normal, self-interested folks, wanting to preserve their way of life and status quo.
Egan also lumps "precipitation" and "rain" together as synonyms, a gross error in dryland farming. Most if not all dryland wheat in the west depends on snow-melt sinking into the ground in late winter and early spring to nourish the wheat, NOT an even dispensement of "rain" throughout the growing season. On page 266, Egan makes the mistake of saying that "twenty inches of rain or less is simply not enough to raise crops." This is simply false, as there are many areas that raise good crops of wheat on less than twenty inches of precipitation.
Second, Egan is way too tough on the 1930s' farmers, imposing standards on them that they could not possibly have known. Again and again he blames the farmers, and puts words and thoughts into their mouths without sourcing, to the effect that they "should have known better." Really? And just how could or would they have known better? There was no Soil Conservation Service, no County Extension Agents, no Farming Bulletins; these were people who were trying their best to make a living in a very, very tough place. Then, almost as an afterthought, Egan finally quotes the fact-finding commission (268) of the time, which did not blame the farmers because "they lacked both the knowledge and the incentive" to farm the land right. This is too little, too late, but Egan needs to heed the commission's advice: yes, the farming practices of the time were illly suited to the conditions of the Great Plains, and were part of the puzzle that resulted in the Dust Bowl. But the farmers were using practices both that were taught them and what they had used in wetter areas. Egan is way too harsh on them, and holds them to an impossible standard.
That having been said, if one reads this book with caution, as providing some valuable and well-written PARTS of the puzzle, not the WHOLE, the Worst Hard Time is a worthy purchase. It DOES give you excellent and personal insight into the lives of those who lived in a very tough time in a very tough place.
53 of 58 people found the following review helpful
This ranks as one of the best books I've ever read... The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan. It stunned me on a number of levels.
For those unfamiliar with the term "Dust Bowl" (and that's most Americans in reality), it refers to a period of history when the Great Plains area of the United States experienced a phenomenon known as dust storms. The Great Plains is the central portion of the US, and includes parts of states like Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Texas. I think the vast majority of Americans who don't come from that area think of the Dust Bowl as a couple of paragraphs in their history books, and something that happened during the Great Depression in 1929. That's what I thought, but the truth is far more devastating.
Egan tells the story of the Dust Bowl through the lives of six different families who came to the area to settle down, create their homestead, and start farming. The "Great American Desert" was touted as the next great opportunity to own land and earn a fortune, and hundreds of thousands did just that. But to make this happen, our government had to clear out the Native Americans already there. That meant exterminating the buffalo. Once that was done, the Indians were forced to move because their way of life was destroyed. The homesteaders came in, and started ripping up the field grass to plant crops. However, the area was far too arid to support the new farming and overuse, and the winds started to carry off the top soil. Coupled with a severe drought, the entire ecosystem was destroyed and that started a chain of events that really never gets told in this level of detail...
The settlers came in the 1920's and that's when the destruction of the plains occurred. When the stock market crash of 1929 started the Great Depression, the prices for crops collapsed. People planted more to earn less, and the vicious cycle continued to the point where the cost of the farming exceeded the price for the crops. The drought that led to the dust storms lasted not just a season or two, but throughout the entire decade of the 1930's. And the dusters... We're talking storms that were miles long, that would last for days, and that completely blotted out the sun. You had minutes to react, and if you were caught outside you would likely die of suffocation. Children especially were susceptible to "dust pneumonia", and the death rate was staggering. Families lost absolutely everything, but there was nowhere to go because the entire country was broke. This environment is what greeted Franklin Roosevelt when he came into office, and knowing this makes the "New Deal" much more understandable. For over 10 years, people couldn't grow crops, get relief from the dust, wind, and heat, and watched whole communities wither and die... literally. I really can't do justice to the stories and experiences that are told in this book.
There were so many things that hit me when reading this.... How could we be so ignorant of such a major event in our history? It makes hurricane Katrina look like a minor incident. Why do we think elected government officials have some magic knowledge or insight as to how things work? They are as clueless as the electorate (doesn't matter which party, either). How come we Americans have felt that we have a right to take everything we can from the environment with no thought as to whether it's sustainable? And how many of our "informed decisions" based on our "advanced technology" will look just as stupid 50 years from now as the ones made back then? We really don't learn from our mistakes, and we have no sense of history... only "now".
To my liberal friends... I'm not ready to sign up for the Green party and go hug a tree. But I'm far more likely to give the time of day to an environmentalist now than I ever was before. There is a line between preservation and conservation, but we're not even in that ballpark most of the time. This is an incredible book, and one that I highly recommend...
24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Subtitled "The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl", this 2006 non-fiction account of this American tragedy is historical writing at its best. The author is a Pulitizer Prize winning reporter for the New York Times. I loved his simple but powerful writing style which had a touch of literary description that kept me fascinated throughout its 312 pages.
Once upon a time the Great Plains was grassland. For thousands of years it was a place where buffalo and bison grazed. The land is flat, the winds strong, there is little rain, and the variation in temperature extreme. There was no rich soil under the grass. In the early part of the 20th century the buffalo was gone but there were ranches where cattle grazed. But through a combination of factors, including the rapid expansion of the railroads, the government gave away small parcels of this land for farming. This was a bargain for thousands of families who were willing to settle this land. Some were immigrants with hopes and dreams and little money. All looked forward to a good life. And, for a time it was.
Problem was that the grass was ploughed under in order to plant crops. This destroyed the small amount of topsoil that was holding the grass in place. When America entered the World War I, there was a need for wheat. The price for wheat was high. Farmers began to prosper. They took bank loans and bought more and more land which they planted with wheat. When the war ended there was too much wheat, the price went down and the wheat rotted. But that was just the beginning. Huge storms of dust started to blow. People tried to keep it from their houses with by covering the windows with wet sheets. But the dust particles were so small, they got through the barriers. People sickened with lung problems, children died of "dust pneumonia", crops couldn't grow, and people were almost starving.
Some stayed on the land. The Depression was hitting the whole country. There was no place for them to go.
This is their story, told though the eyes of people who lived through it, some of whom are still there. Woven through this story are historical facts and horrific descriptions of the terror of the storms. And, later, even when President Roosevelt tried to help by having trees planted, bringing in a variety of different seeds, and teaching the people contour farming, grasshoppers ruined the crops once again.
There were times I felt like crying as I read the book. And there were times I felt nothing but respect for the grit and gumption and hard work of the farmers. Today, some people still live in this "dust bowl' and modern technology has brought water to the region. But it is still sparsely populated and the people still there will "never forget".
Read this book. It will open your eyes about a part of Americana with a unique and horrific history.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
This is a great history. It is readable, interesting and covers a topic not often - if ever - covered. Mr. Egan fills the books with anecdotes from survivors that adds color and realism to the book.
The dustbowl is almost unanimously considered America's worst natural disaster by meteorologists. Although we all know a little about the eight years (amazingly eight years) of drought and dust storms, Mr. Egan brings home how devastating the dustbowl was. In fine detail he tells of the devastation of both the land and the people who lived there. His descriptions of the storms of dirt are excellent and he chooses the best quotes of those who lived through them to finish the word picture.
The story is a microcosm of human nature and man's misuse of his ability to tame the land. When wheat prices rose and then were guaranteed during WWI, homesteaders plowed the natural grass to plant wheat. After the war, when teh price halved, mechanical plows were available thanks to ready credit and the steaders doubled the size of their fields to maintain income. Without being preachy, Mr. Egan points out the ecological devastation. He then tracks the economic devastation when the price of wheat dropped precipitously until it actually hit negative numbers at one point. He then tracks the Roosevelt administration's attempts to save both the people and the land, which includes the effective, ineffective, political and realistic responses.
In the middle it gets a bit bogged down with somewhat repetitive anecdotes. However, these characters are followed through to the end, so this is a very minor criticism.
This book is certainly worthy of the National Book Award. It is a wonderful example of a readable primary source history and very highly recommended.