The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, by Timothy Egan, is a cautionary tale about the dust storms that swept the great grasslands of the United States in the 1930s. Egan interweaves the stories of individual settlers, immigrants, homestead-seekers, and displaced city folks, with the history of the former Native American lands in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Nebraska.
Thousands relocated to the grasslands in the early 1930s seeking a new life, lured by false promises of vibrant new cities, rich land, and abundant water. Few arrived to much more than flat grasslands fit for grazing, which formerly fed bison. Many of those who arrived set out to tame the grassland into farms and for a time, were successful raising crops while rain still came. With their newfound prosperity built on rising grain prices, the settlers moved from dugouts and makeshift shelters to real homes, bought luxuries, and enjoyed a comfortable life.
But grain prices dropped, the rain stopped coming, and a years-long drought cast a pall on the growing communities. Temperatures that varied with the seasons from baking to bitterly cold combined with harsh winds to whip the soil into huge, rolling dust storms, with enough static electricity to kill small animals and crops. What were once acres of cultivated fields now looked like sand dunes, with the dust defeating all efforts to keep it out of their homes. Farmers began to suffer from “dust pneumonia” as their lungs struggled to breathe through dust that made visibility so low that during the height of storms, it was impossible to see at all. Settlers died in their yards, smothered by the dust, unable to see well enough to find the shelter of their own home.
Neighboring states were unreceptive to farmers who tried to relocate there. The country’s economy was struggling everywhere, but the plight of the dust bowl farmer was too distant to spur the nation’s lawmakers into action--that is, until the dust clouds reached the capital. Efforts more serious that the rainmakers hired by locals had greater effect—in particular, the soil conservation initiatives that sought to change the way the land was used and cultivated. With a collective effort by many landowners, some of the land could be reclaimed so that dust storms were less frequent.
There are lessons to be learned from Egan’s book that are applicable to finite natural resources other than the prairie grass and soil it protected. His book is well researched and empathetic to all parties—those who encouraged settlement as well as those who turned the prairie grass into ill-fated fields. The Worst Hard Time won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2006, and was first published by Houghton Mifflin in 2005.