What was the worst avoidable environmental catastrophe in American history? Timothy Egan nominates the Great Dust Bowl of the 1930s, a near-decade-long event that disrupted millions of lives in the Great Plains states of Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska. The National Book Foundation has nominated his new book on the period The Worst Hard Time for the 2006 nonfiction National Book Award.
Many of us have probably not thought much about the Great Dust Bowl beyond having read Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. It was so long ago and just one of the Great Depression episodes to us. In The Worst Hard Time, Egan makes the lifeless memory vivid with details of the lives of some survivors, including Bam White, a Dalhart rancher; the Hersteins, who owned a local department store; Hazel Lucas, who taught school for two years without pay; and John McCarty, the town booster who refused to admit that anything extraordinary happened, wanting to attract new residents to his community.
The dust storms of the 1930s were beyond what many of us can imagine today. Great black walls of dirt rolled across the plains, often with little warning. People were lost in their yards, sometimes buried in sand or dirt. Dunes formed along houses and barns. People had to dig out their cars after many storms. In some years there were up to 180 storms. By the third year many people had dust pneumonia, and many young children died. Many mothers would let their children outdoors unsupervised. Crops failed year after year. Many farm families and town people lost everything they owned in bankruptcy.
Scientists now agree that the most important contributing cause of the storms was the farmers replacing of Great Plains perennial grasses with annual crops. When the decade of drought and high winds returned after abnormally moist years, a recurring and normal cycle in the Great Plains, there was no vegetation to hold the soil. In the 1930s this explanation was hotly debated.
I listened to the narrative history read by Patrick Lawlor, who uses many voices to distinguish the many characters. What I missed with the audiobook are the photos, maps, notes, bibliography, and index that are in the print edition.
The Worst Hard Time is an excellent book for discussion. Houghton Mifflin has posted a conversation with the author on its website. Every library should have it.
Egan, Timothy. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. ISBN 061834697X
Unabdridged audio, 10 compact discs. Tantor Media, 2006. ISBN 1400132207