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The Worst Hard Time
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"The Worst Hard Time is an epic story of blind hope and endurance almost beyond belief; it is also, as Tim Egan has told it, a riveting tale of bumptious charlatans, conmen, and tricksters, environmental arrogance and hubris, political chicanery, and a ruinous ignorance of nature's ways. Egan has reached across the generations and brought us the people who played out the drama in this devastated land, and uses their voices to tell the story as well as it could ever be told."

--Marq de Villiers, author of Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource

The dust storms that terrorized America's High Plains in the darkest years of the Depression were like nothing ever seen before or since, and the stories of the people that held on have never been fully told. Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist and author Timothy Egan follows a half-dozen families and their communities through the rise and fall of the region, going from sod homes to new framed houses to huddling in basements with the windows sealed by damp sheets in a futile effort to keep the dust out. He follows their desperate attempts to carry on through blinding black blizzards, crop failure, and the deaths of loved ones. Drawing on the voices of those who stayed and survived - those who, now in their eighties and nineties, will soon carry their memories to the grave - Egan tells a story of endurance and heroism against the backdrop of the Great Depression.

As only great history can, Egan's book captures the very voice of the times: its grit, pathos, and abiding courage. Combining the human drama of Isaac's Storm with the sweep of The American People in the Great Depression, The Worst Hard Time is a lasting and important work of American history. Timothy Egan is a national enterprise reporter for the New York Times. He is the author of four books and the recipient of several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

"As one who, as a young reporter, survived and reported on the great Dust Bowl disaster, I recommend this book as a dramatic, exciting, and accurate account of that incredible and deadly phenomenon. This is can't-put-it-down history."--Walter Cronkite

"The Worst Hard Time is wonderful: ribbed like surf, and battering us with a national epic that ranks second only to the Revolution and the Civil War. Egan knows this and convincingly claims recognition for his subject - as we as a country finally accomplished, first with Lewis and Clark, and then for 'the greatest generation,' many of whose members of course were also survivors of the hardships of the Great Depression. This is a banner, heartfelt but informative book, full of energy, research, and compassion."

--Edward Hoagland, author of Compass Points: How I Lived

"Here's a terrific true story - who could put it down? Egan humanizes Dust Bowl history by telling the vivid stories of the families who stayed behind. One loves the people and admires Egan's vigor and sympathy."

--Annie Dillard, author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

"The American West got lucky when Tim Egan focused his acute powers of observation on its past and present. Egan's remarkable combination of clear analysis and warm empathy anchors his portrait of the women and men who held on to their places - and held on to their souls - through the nearly unimaginable miseries of the Dust Bowl. This book provides the finest mental exercise for people wanting to deepen, broaden, and strengthen their thinking about the relationship of human beings to this earth."-

--Patricia N. Limerick, author of The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West

Customer Reviews:

  • why can't more history be written like this?
    If you're hedging about reading The Worst Hard Time," thinking you already know everything about the dust bowl and the droughts on the Great Plains during the Depression era, don't. It's definitely not fiction and it's told by those whose families lived it. These people who settled and actually farmed in the areas of the Oklahoma & Texas panhandles were called nesters -- and for a while they had everything going for them -- until things went horribly wrong. This is their story, and while it's history, it's written in a style that makes you unable to stop reading (in my case, to stop listening -- I had it on CD).
    The author has done an incredible amount of research and interviews, putting together the story of the Dust Bowl storms of the 1930s and their effects not only on the land, but on the economy, on people's health and mental state as well. After children started to die of dust pneumonia, for example, women questioned whether or not they should even be bringing more children into the world. Mothers had to put wet sheets over their babies' cribs, over the windows, and try to shut up any opening in their homes to try to hold back the wind (known as a duster) and its deadly cargo of dust. As things got worse and the economy started to dry up, some people took to canning Russian Thistles, tumbleweeds or yucca just to survive -- any livestock they may have had produced dust-laden milk. The food crop market bottomed out; farmers once prosperous from the earlier wheat boom were now selling off anything they could find just to keep their families fed and to try to hold the bankers at bay trying not to lose their farms. But the worst hard time began with Black Sunday, in April of '35 -- in which a gigantic duster blew and made the air so clogged with dirt that it was often fatal to just be outdoors since a person could choke to death due to the massive amounts of soil & dust in the air. Egan traces this period using the accounts of actual survivors of the time, and asks some hard questions regarding the root causes -- and questions and tries to figure out why people actually stayed rather than leave the miserable conditions. He also examines the government's role in finding solutions for these plains farmers.
    The above is just a bare sketch of what's between the covers of this book. I HIGHLY recommend this one to anyone even remotely interested in the topic. I wouldn't necessarily call it an objective work of history (you can really feel the author's emotion throughout the pages), but it is history well worth reading. I wish more people would offer history done like this....more info
  • The Worst Hard Time
    I could not put this down. It is a compelling story of courage and strength shown by the farmers and town's citizens of the southern plains in the midst of the great dust storms and economic depression of the 1930's. This is a piece of American history everyone should learn about....more info
  • very interesting& informative
    Really enjoyed this book on the history fo the Dust Bowl. I've always herd about it but didn't know the whole story leading up to the "cause" of it. ...more info
  • A Cautionary Tale
    This finely written history of the Great Plains and the catalysm that consumed them is well worth reading. Tim Egan interviews the last survivors of this dark era and follows their stories from beginning to end. It's a cautionary tale about American greed, short-sighted government policies, and nature's payback for human abuse of the land. Amazing facts are given, particularly about Black Sunday and the massive dust cloud that made its way from the midwest to Chicago and New York City. Only through FDR's intervention was the tide turned, but even today, there are still remnants of the uprooting of the Plains. One wonders what's in store for us as we blindly pursue our lifestyles that depend on oil consumption, global warming, and constant destruction of the environment. ...more info
  • WE didnt know it was this bad
    I was just a kid and I enjoyed those dust storms because they let school out...more info
  • The Worst Hard Time
    Excellent book; if you want to know what the "Dust Bowl" was all about - how it happened, how people coped, how it affected everyday life - this is the book for you. Fascinating....more info
  • Makes a wonderful gift for anyone especially the younger generations
    After reading this book and remembering the times back then, I bought other copies of it as gifts for family members and friends. I lived through that time in the gemeral area discussed and want the younger generation/s to know more about that almost unbelievable era. We were more fortunate than many as I remember we had a larger variety foods. These were mostly limited to dried pinto beans, dried blackeyed peas, cornbread, oatmeal and milk which our mother brought to a boil before it was used. That cow had been marked for death and a kind farmer failed to kill it as instructed by the government. This was a favor to our family of five children. This allowed us to have hot chocolate when we could scrape together enough money to buy cocoa and sugar. He also allowed us to live in an old house that had been used as a barn for many years. We survived thanks to that very good, kind man. Compared to those discussed in WORST HARD TIME, we were rich indeed. ...more info
    This book (audio version) captured my attention. It had an important story to tell about the unbelievable austerity of the dustbowl era. It also had a clear warning for the future of this country both in terms of the dire consequences of rapid depletion of the environment and economic extravagance.

    The book did, however, tell the same story a bunch of times....more info
  • Compelling history of Dust Bowl
    This is an excellent book about the Dust Bowl and those who stayed behind to survive it. The details are vivid and well-researched, and the book is beautifully written. I've been recommending it to all my friends; for me it's an unforgettable, gripping look at the past with lessons for the present and future....more info
  • Nice read but harsher than a duster on the farmers
    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....more info
  • The American dust bowl and the grit and gumption of those who will never forget
    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. ...more info
  • Fascinating and Educational
    Timothy Egan's narration brings history alive concerning the dustbowl and the worldwide depression. His following of individual stories and towns helps to keep the story on track. It has prompted me to order another Egan book, he is such a wonderful writer....more info
  • And the wind hits heavy on the border line...
    Timothy Egan relates that it was a son of Kansas, Roy Emerson Stryker, who came up with the idea of creating a record of American decay for the files of the Farm Security Administration, and "...the government photo unit proved to be one of the lasting and most popular contributions of the New Deal..." Americans familiar with their history have the images taken by Walter Evans and Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression as part of their cultural baggage, and Egan expands that to the work of Arthur Rothstein, and others, who were just out of college, and told to stay in the "field", and get to know the people. The images of the immense ecological disaster that was dubbed "the Dust Bowl" are not properly honored with even the word "haunting."

    Egan has written a magnificent, heart-breaking history of the "the Dust Bowl" area during the `30's. Much of the specific history was new to me, and thus confirmed Truman's dictum that there is nothing new in the world except the history that you did not know. I had recently re-read Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," which Egan briefly touches upon, pointing out correctly that Tom Joad and his family came from eastern Oklahoma, whereas the true dust bowl encompassed only western Oklahoma. I felt Egan's one map, outlining where the area of the dust bowl was, most illuminating. Both Steinbeck's and Egan's books are damning indictments of so-called "market forces" unleashed without an overall structure of prudent rules set by society, as administered by the government. Egan did however cover the impudent rules that society and the government advocated, which encouraged the settlement and farming of the land west of the 100th meridian which was the root cause of the dust bowl.

    Egan tells the story of the worst hard times through the eyes of those who experienced it, via interviews with them, or their children, accompanied by surviving diaries and the newspaper stories of the day. He doesn't say how or why he selected certain people, but I felt that they were a representative sampling, from Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. Of the stories that were particularly memorable, I found the ones of the "Volga Germans" who settled in Shattuck, OK. They had been recruited by Empress Catherine the Great of Russia (who was actually German) to settle on the Volga river. They were given incentives to do so, like exemption from conscription. When these were removed, 150 years later, by Czar Alexander II, they left in mass, and settled in the USA. The epicenter of Egan's stories, and no doubt research, seemed to be Dalhart, Texas, in the northwest corner of the panhandle. The author starts his book with the story of Bam White, part Indian, whose horses could not carry his family any further south into Texas, so he had to stop in Delhart. Bam was in the most famous movie made about the dust bowl, and was shunned by much of the population of the area for this role. Another very memorable character from Delhart was the indominable promoter and newspaper editor, John L McCarty. He was a founding member of the "Last Man Club," pledging that they would never leave, a pledge that he broke, when "he got a better deal." I also found the stories of set in the Oklahoma panhandle, which was once called "no man's land" also quite illuminating.

    I read a few of the 1-star reviews, found their criticism of little merit. One did not like the endless stories about the dust storms, which I found a strength of the book. Egan explained well the whole trajectory of the area's residents from hope and defiance through resignation and defeat. As Egan says on p 242: "The problem with history was that it was written by the survivors, and they usually wrote in the sunshine, on harvest day, from victory stands."

    Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" was the catalyst for a trip to Garden City, Kansas a year ago, to see the feedlots there. Pollan declares that afterwards it would take "a supreme act of forgetting to ever eat meat again." On the way, I drove through Dalhart, and on the way back, I drove through Boise City, OK (named, as Egan points out, after the French word, "bois," for woods, of which there are none except in the fevered imagination of the real estate promoters.) I stopped in Keys, OK, and photographed the still extant devastation, the abandoned houses, and shuttered businesses. Egan's book will force a return trip, now that he has helped me "see" what I was oblivious too the last time.

    On last year's trip it was quite apparent that both the panhandles of OK and TX continue to struggle, yet the area around Garden City, KS seemed relatively prosperous. Sadly, Egan explains some of this in his epilogue: "So cotton growing, siphoning from the Ogallala (underground reservoir) get three billion dollars a year in taxpayer money for fiber that is shipped to China, where it is used to make cheap clothing sold back to American chain retail stores like Wal-Mart. The aquifer is declining at a rate of 1.1 million acre-feet a day... In parts of the Texas Panhandle, hydrologists say, the water will be gone by 2010."

    Plus ca change...

    Egan's book certainly deserves the National Book Award. An excellent, informative read.
    ...more info
  • The worst book I have read in years.
    Let me preface this by saying that I love reading about history. Maybe my expectations for this book were too high, but I HATED it. 50 pages, 100 pages, 150 pages in I kept fighting the urge to put the book down and forget about it, but I kept hoping that it would get better. It didn't.

    This book sucks. It was awful; horribly disappointing. It dragged and dragged and dragged, and when I finally finished it I returned it to the bookstore. I will never read it again and would not recommend it to anyone. There were a couple parts that were interesting, but most of it was mind-numbingly dull. Egan went into great (and in my opinion, needless) detail of the history and mundane details of many of the families, but not the kind of detail that contributes to the message of the book or gives you much insight characters.

    There were too many narratives incorporated into the book, and it was difficult to keep the different families, individuals and cities straight, especially since many of their stories were so similar. I get it--everyone's animals died, nobody's plants would grow, dunes were high, and people had dust pneumonia. I wish Egan had further developed fewer stories; it would have made the book more engaging. He hopscotched between families, communities, politicians, and individuals constantly, making the book more difficult to read and appreciate.

    It says it is "can't-put-it-down history" on the cover, but that is a complete lie. I honestly can't believe I finished it, it was so boring and I literally was able to read only 10 pages at a time because it was so utterly BORING. I expected more from this book. It read like a too-long chapter from a junior high history book. I have no doubt that the story of the dust bowl is fascinating, so I was extremely disappointed with this book.
    ...more info
  • History brought to life
    I'm not normally a history reader, but lately recommendations have led me in that direction- and I'm not sorry. Uncovering gems like this one through Amazon's recommendation feature is a great pastime.

    The Worst Hard Time delivers a thorough account of life in a tiny American town, Dalhart, Texas, where the inhabitants have been sold a bill of goods - or rather a deed of land. The people here - and for miles and miles around, in corners of several states - force wheat out of the dry ground to make a living, and then as profits get slimmer, they strip more grass to grow more wheat - until the land has left the ground, quite literally, and ascended into the air in terrifying dust storms.

    It's a piece of American history which seems peculiar until we realize how relevant it is: today's combination of economic mayhem and ecological struggle may give rise to events like this - Hurricane Katrina may be considered an existing example.

    But the reasons to read this book are not political or academic. Frankly, it's just a hell of a yarn, a fast-paced, character-filled story from one end to the other, and I blew through it in a couple of afternoons. Spectacularly written....more info
  • 80 million acres stripped of their topsoil, end of agricultural free market economics, and birth of the welfare state
    1. In 1930, 256 banks had failed and the cry was "where did our money go?" Oil prices for a barrel dropped from $1.43 to 10 cents. The economy was a pile of glue.

    2. By Sep 1929, 1.5 million people were out of work. In 1930, 1,350 banks failed, going under with $853 million in deposits. The next year, 2,294 banks failed. In 1931, the Bank of the United States in New York with two million dollars defaulted. When the bank defaulted, twelve million jobs were lost or 25 percent of the work force.

    3. In 1931, 28,000 business closed doors, both private and corporate. Money was not circulating. When the banks closed people scourged for food. People were starving. At the same time wheat was being piled up and wasted. On the Texas Panhandle, two million acres had been turned to sod. The wheat came in at 250 million bushels. Farmers were desperate to pay debt, but slowly bleeding out, for every five dollars earn they lost one. Milk, pork, and cattle prices dropped correspondingly as people were unable to pay price and commodity bust transpired, too much supply and not enough paying customers.

    4. In 1931, there were thirty-three million acres stripped bare in the southern plains. The market price was 50 percent the cost for the farmer to break even. Normally, this inefficiency would have resulted in default and supply drops, but debt and speculation allowed prolonged oversupply, further exasperating the condition.

    5. A two year hit Montana and the soil turned to fine particles and started to roll, stir, and take flight. Wheat dropped to 19 cents a bushel - an all time low. Tens of thousands had their savings swept away. The US food Administration set a price guarantee for wheat that set off a stampede transforming the grasslands and the price controls created long-term shortages. However, American capitalism was in a deep freeze.

    6. By 1932, nearly two-thirds of the farmers face foreclosure, for back taxes and debt. One in twenty were losing their land.

    7. In a cashless society people lived off home industry: eggs laid in coups, vegetables grown in garden, pigs slaughtered for bacon, and cows milked to feed young and old. Water from windmills provide irrigation means.

    8. The Argiculture College of Oklahoma reported in their state during the wheat bonanza, sixteen million acres was planted in wheat and thirteen million acres left to seriously erode and this was before the drought and calcification of the ground. Neglect of the land was a significant contributor to the dust bowls. Abandonment caused from sudden price drops, commodity distribution problems, and easy money entrapment forcing debt repayment behavior that exploit natural resources.

    9. High temperatures during winter did not kill off many of the pests. Epidemic insect pollutions flourish: grasshoppers, spiders, and centipedes invaded every living space.

    10. Sitting Bull had predicted the land would get it revenge on whites who forced the Indians off the grasslands. He saw doom from the sky.

    11. President Roosevelt ended agricultural free market economics for good. Roosevelt said: America had produced more food than any country in history, and farmers were being run off the land, penniless, while the cities couldn't feed themselves. The average farmer earned three hundred dollars a year, an 80 percent drop in income from a decade earlier. Government would try to shape the price and flow of food, to force prices up. Roosevelt had the government buy surplus corn, beans, and flour, and distribute it to the needy. Over six million pigs were slaughtered, and meat given to relief organizations. The Welfare state was born. Under Roosevelt, government was the market. The Civilian Conservation Corps built dams, bridges, retains, roads, and lakes and ponds. Roosevelt signed a bill giving farmers two hundred million dollars to help farmers facing foreclosure. The Volstead act permited the sale of 3.2 percent beer.

    12. By some estimates their were 80 million acres in the southern plains stripped of their topsoil.
    ...more info
  • A fascinating account--five stars aren't enough!
    I hate to use such a trite phrase, but there is no other way to put it: Mr. Egan makes history come alive. What was but a few paragraphs in my American history classes is related here as a very real and tragic event that happened to real people, not just faceless, unnamed masses. He truly portrays the overwhelming immensity of the Dust Bowl and its effect on the nation not only at the time, but even today. I highly recommend this amazing and enthralling story....more info