Worst Hard Time (Egan)

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
Timothy Egan, 2005
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
352 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780618773473

Winner, 2006 National Book Award for Nonfiction

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. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Born—November 8, 1954
Where—Seattle, Washington, USA
Awards—Pulitizer Prize, Journalism (2001); National Book
   Award, Nonfiction; Washington State Book Award (twice)
Currently—lives in Seattle, Washington

Timothy Egan is an American Pulitzer Prize winning author who resides in Seattle, Washington. He currently contributes opinion columns to the New York Times as the paper's Pacific Northwest correspondent. In 2001, he won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for his contribution to the series "How Race is Lived in America."

In addition to his work with the New York Times, he has written six books, including The Good Rain (Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award, 1991), Breaking Blue, and Lasso the Wind.

The Worst Hard Time is his non-fiction account of those who lived through The Great Depression's Dust Bowl, for which he won the 2006 Washington State Book Award in history/biography and a 2006 National Book Award.

In 2009 he wrote The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, which details the Great Fire of 1910 that burned about three million acres (12,000 km²) and helped shape the United States Forest Service. The book also details some of the political issues of the time focusing on Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. Egan won a second Washington State Book Award in history/biography in 2010 for this work, and a second Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award.

In 2012 Egan published a biography of Western and Native American photographer, Edward Curtis: Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis. (From Wikipedia.)

Also see the extensive interview with Egan and his publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Book Reviews
Mr. Egan makes this iconic material fresh by focusing on the plight of a handful of families from the hardest-hit bottom of the Dust Bowl, the western edge of the Oklahoma Panhandle known as No Man's Land; Dallam County due south in the Texas Panhandle; and Baca County in southeastern Colorado.
David Laskin - New York Times

Timothy Egan's searing history of the economic and ecological collapse of the southern Great Plains during the 1930s is an epic cautionary tale. Intertwining the stories of roughly a dozen individuals and families with a grim overview of the region-wide disaster, Egan's fluent narrative chronicles the terrifying consequences of a reckless hubris that in a few decades stripped the earth of prairie grass that for centuries had protected it from erosion. The American people and their government collaborated in transforming a sea of waving, waist-high bluestem—described by William Clark on his expedition west with Meriwether Lewis in 1804 as "one of the most pleasing prospects I ever beheld"—into a blasted landscape of abandoned farms surrounded by four-foot drifts of dust, scattered with dead farm animals and useless equipment.
Wendy Smith - Washington Post

On April 14, 1935, the biggest dust storm on record descended over five states, from the Dakotas to Amarillo, Texas. People standing a few feet apart could not see each other; if they touched, they risked being knocked over by the static electricity that the dust created in the air. The Dust Bowl was the product of reckless, market-driven farming that had so abused the land that, when dry weather came, the wind lifted up millions of acres of topsoil and whipped it around in “black blizzards,” which blew as far east as New York. This ecological disaster rapidly disfigured whole communities. Egan’s portraits of the families who stayed behind are sobering and far less familiar than those of the “exodusters” who staggered out of the High Plains. He tells of towns depopulated to this day, a mother who watched her baby die of “dust pneumonia,” and farmers who gathered tumbleweed as food for their cattle and, eventually, for their children.
The New Yorker

Egan tells an extraordinary tale in this visceral account of how America's great, grassy plains turned to dust, and how the ferocious plains winds stirred up an endless series of "black blizzards" that were like a biblical plague: "Dust clouds boiled up, ten thousand feet or more in the sky, and rolled like moving mountains" in what became known as the Dust Bowl. But the plague was man-made, as Egan shows: the plains weren't suited to farming, and plowing up the grass to plant wheat—along with a confluence of economic disaster, the Depression, and a natural disaster-eight years of drought— resulted in an ecological and human catastrophe that Egan details with stunning specificity. He grounds his tale in portraits of the people who settled the plains: hardy Americans and immigrants desperate for a piece of land to call their own and lured by the lies of promoters who said the ground was arable. Egan's interviews with survivors produce tales of courage and suffering: Hazel Lucas, for instance, dared to give birth in the midst of the blight only to see her baby die of "dust pneumonia" when her lungs clogged with the airborne dirt. With characters who seem to have sprung from a novel by Sinclair Lewis or Steinbeck, and Egan's powerful writing, this account will long remain in readers' minds.
Publishers Weekly

In vivid fashion, Egan reports on the grit, the drifts, and the figures bent against the gusts. All the elements of the iconic dust bowl photographs come together in the author's evocative portrait of those who first prospered and then suffered during the 1930s drought. —Gilbert Taylor

Grim, riveting account by New York Times reporter Egan makes clear that, although hurricanes and floods have grabbed recent headlines, America's worst assault from Mother Nature came in the form of ten long years of drought and dust. The "dust bowl" of the 1930s covered 100 million acres spread over five states: Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska and Colorado. From 1930 to 1935, nearly a million people left their farms, littered with animal corpses and stunted crops. Schools closed. Towns simply disappeared. Thousands died from "dust pneumonia," a new condition born of swallowing and inhaling the swirling topsoil. The author personalizes this tragedy by focusing on a handful of hardy settlers who came to America's heartland with high hopes and boundless energy, then watched with growing despair as the earth turned against them. In truth, the dust bowl was largely a human creation. The great southern plains, once covered with native grasses that fed the buffalo and held the soil in place, were essentially stripped bare in the 1920s by wheat-farmers eager to cash in on cheap land and high grain prices. The newly invented tractor made the job easier, and unusually wet weather in the late '20s made farming on the arid plains seem feasible. But then the Depression hit, wheat prices crashed and once-bountiful farms went fallow, abandoned to the deepening drought and ever-blowing winds that literally sent the soil skyward. In the midst of disaster, Egan finds heroes. Among them is country physician Doc Dawson, who opened a sanitarium for dust pneumonia victims, lost all his money farming and spent his last, penniless years running a soup kitchen. Stark and powerful, a gripping if depressing read and a timely reminder that a Nature abused can exact a terrible retribution.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for The Worst Hard Time:

1. Discuss what Egan presents as the reasons for the dust bowl tragedy. Was it a confluence of unforeseen events that produced the perfect storm? Or was it a man-made disaster that might have been avoided, or at least mitigated?

2. Should everyone have known better—was there enough known at the time about the impact of farming techniques on erosion?

3. Who tried to warn about the dangers of farming in the grasslands and what were the gist of their warnings? Why were they ignored? Is it simply human nature to take heed in hindsight rather than in real time?

4. Talk about the different characters in Egan's story. Which of the families' stories do you find particularly poignant? Which characters do you find most admirable?

5. What descriptions of the dust storms did you find most shocking or most tragic—Black Sunday, static electrcity, dust pneumonia, just to name a few?

6. During the disaster, 250 million people left their homes—a disapora about which Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath is written. But most residents stayed. What made them stay? Would it have been better to have left? Which choice would you have made?

7. What was the political outfall of the dust bowl? How did Washington eventually respond? What have been the lasting effects?

8. What lessons, if any, have we learned from the dust bowl castastrophe—about how human actions, well-intentioned or not, can lead to environmental damage? Is there anything comparable on the horizon today?

9. "Surviving the Dust Bowl," a 2007 documentary, part of the American Experience series on PBS, would make a valuable contribution to any book club discussion. The film footage is stunning. You could get a copy through your public library or through Netflix.

10. You might also pair this work with Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath and discuss the human tragedies—and bravery—in both accounts.

11. Finally, don't miss Timothy Egan's extensive interview with his publisher, Houghton Mifflin.

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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