The Worst Hard Time

The earliest reports of major dust storms in the Great Plains were dismissed in the East. Descriptions of great clouds of dust wiping paint right off buildings seemed simply unimaginable. Even in the Plains, as dust storms began to emerge, warnings that erosion to the soil through unorganized (and increasingly mechanized) farming would have disastrous consequences were largely ignored.  In May of 1934, an enormous storm carried twelve million tons of dust to the city of Chicago. The dust clouds even pushed their way to New York and Washington, blanketing ships at sea with a coat of brown. Timothy Egan’s 2006 book, The Worst Hard Time, describes how the Great American Dust Bowl hit the United States, exacerbating the suffering of the Great Depression. The book was the recipient of a National Book Award.

Historians began writing about both the causes and the consequences of the Dust Bowl in the decades immediately following. Historians continue to debate some of the details about what caused the disaster. What is clear is that extensive farming without the routine use of crop rotations or other techniques to prevent wind erosion, combined with prolonged drought, led to an ecological and economic catastrophe. Egan’s book provides the reader a window into the world of those who lived on the Great Plains when the disaster actually happened. Much of this narrative has been shaped in popular culture by John Steinbeck’s work, The Grapes of Wrath. Egan’s book offers the reader a far more comprehensive overview.

Nevertheless,The Worst Hard Time demonstrates to the reader that the actual history behind the Dust Bowl is as often as dramatic and heart-wrenching as fiction. Journal entries evoke hardship and confusion that followed in the wake of dust storms. Plow horses died, family became sick, and crops were destroyed. The pain expressed in the pages serve as a poignant reminder of the humanity caught in the calamity.

The main characters in Egan’s story, the actual people who lived through the events of the drought and storms — many of them homesteading farmers and their families — experienced the effects of the New Deal in numerous ways. Right off the bat, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s First 100 Days in office included a bank holiday and reforms intended to boost popular confidence in their local banks. The reforms of the New Deal — and of Roosevelt himself — were anything but universally popular. As Egan’s book informs us, however, one program was extraordinarily popular on the Great Plains — the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC planted nearly 40 million erosion-fighting saplings in places like Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas that were heavily affected by Dust Bowl devastation.

In direct response to the Dust Bowl (and with the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 still fresh in American memory) Roosevelt signed into act the Soil Conservation Service in 1935. The bill encouraged farmers to plant native grasses, raise vegetables, and utilize other programs to effectively control soil erosion. More importantly, it asked farmers to think collectively in order to prevent future disasters.

This book helps reshape our picture of one of the greatest disasters in US history. It offers a vivid portrait of the epic disaster that reshaped landscapes – both cultural and environmental.

Reviewed by Ben Hass

is Project Manager for The Living New Deal. He is a trained cultural historian who teaches courses in U.S. History at the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University.

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