Monday, February 25, 2013

The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan

An extraordinary book about the dust storms on the High Plains in the 1930s. This book takes us into the lives of several people who made up the "nesters" - farmers, along with cowboys, ranchers, doctors, teachers, and newspapermen. We follow the history of the plains from the early twenties, when land was free or cheap and hopes were high, when government policy fed the ambitions of the settlers, on into the 1930s and the worst of the storms.

It is clear from our present perspective that the horrors of the "dust bowl" were man-made. It took a few years and some gutsy thinking people to get that message out during the worst of it and to start the process that would lead to some recovery. Not that these plains have ever fully recovered.

Of particular interest are the extraordinary details. What the storms did to people, animals, buildings, and what happened on the rare occasions when it actually rained. While in the air (which was most of the time) the dust created such static electricity that people were afraid to touch each other. The touch could knock them across a room. The electricity shorted out engines and started fires. The dust destroyed just about everything it touched, killing the natural animal and plant population while bringing in insects that thrived on what was left. Millions of acres of land were left sterile, while the swarms of dust moved into the cities, over other parts of the country, and into the ocean. The storms even reached New York City and Washington, D.C. on occasion.

How the government responded is another fascinating tale, featuring a president who couldn't think of anything to do - Hoover - followed by one who did everything possible - Roosevelt. It's possible that the biggest hero of the time was the person who took on a new governmental position under Roosevelt, Hugh Bennett, and came up with ways to hold the soil down. He didn't stop there, of course. He took his mission to the loners who made up the plains settlers and convinced them that they had to work together to fight this thing.

The story is devastating and often heart-breaking. And so very readable.

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