Book Review: The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan




Reviewed here: The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dustbowl by Timothy Egan Published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 2006

Aphorism of the cowboys of the high plains in the early 20th century, frustrated with the 'dusters' who insisted the prairie could be converted to viable grain farming:  "miles to water, miles to wood, and only six inches to hell."

During a recent bout of procrastination I happened upon a short blog post on boingboing that featured a photo of a gent holding up a perennial wheat variety and its tremendously long roots.  One of the post's subsequent commenters linked our society's failure to make better use of such varieties with the 1930s era ecological disaster known as the Great American Dust Bowl, and recommended The Worst Hard Time as a terrific read. I took the bait, so here we are.

I now agree with the commenter. The Worst Hard Time is really good book that debunked my wrongly held assumptions about the cause, severity, and duration of the dust storms in America during the Great Depression.  Whereas I had always believed that we were talking about just a few mega-storms over the course of less than a year on the American Prairie, the people who resided in the worst affected areas (the high southern American plains of Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico) experienced relentless dust storms and drought for more than seven years.  At the end, 100 million acres of land were seriously degraded.  Thousands died from dust-related health complications, and the population of the region was drastically reduced as many moved on to other parts of the continent.  

Here's Egan talking about the situation in the Dust Bowl just before the drought hit in 1931, after years of prosperity in the region due to high wheat prices and cheap financing from the banks: 

"The greatest agricultural accomplishment in the history of tilling the land", some called it.  The tractors had done what no hailstorm, no blizzard, no tornado, no drought, no epic siege of frost, no prairie fire, nothing in the natural history of the southern plains had ever done.  They had removed the native prairie grass, a web of perennial species evolved over twenty thousand years or more, so completely that by the end of 1931 it was a different land--thirty-three million acres stripped bare in the southern plains."

By the end of the worst of it, 100 million acres were affected by serious degradation.  In 1935, one of the worst years of the drought, 850 million tonnes of topsoil blew off farms in the southern American plains.  Egan tells a story about the greatest grass ecosystem in the world destroyed by bad economic and agricultural policies, greed, ignorance, and human hubris, and the subsequent effort to fix the disaster by the Franklin Delano Roosevelt government's soil conservation strategies.  And he does so while winding a fascinating set of narratives around the daily lives of those who lived through the disaster.  

I recommend this book especially to anyone interested in a comprehensive description of the relationship between bad governmental policy and environmental destruction.  Overall I give it an 8 out of 10.  I finished the book glad that I had read it, but disappointed by the limited scope of Egan's epilogue, which could have done a better job comparing and contrasting the American grain industry and soil conservation efforts in the 20's and 30's with those practices today.