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Worst Hard Time (Egan) - Book Reviews

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
Booklist


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




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