The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
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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.
Timothy Egan is a national enterprise reporter for the New York Times. He is the author of four books and the recipient of several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Seattle, Washington.
“As one who, as a young reporter, survived and reported on the great Dust Bowl disaster, I recommend this book as a dramatic, exciting, and accurate account of that incredible and deadly phenomenon. This is can’t-put-it-down history.” —Walter Cronkite
"The Worst Hard Time is wonderful: ribbed like surf, and battering us with a national epic that ranks second only to the Revolution and the Civil War. Egan knows this and convincingly claims recognition for his subject—as we as a country finally accomplished, first with Lewis and Clark, and then for 'the greatest generation,' many of whose members of course were also survivors of the hardships of the Great Depression. This is a banner, heartfelt but informative book, full of energy, research, and compassion." —Edward Hoagland, author of Compass Points: How I Lived
"Here's a terrific true story—who could put it down? Egan humanizes Dust Bowl history by telling the vivid stories of the families who stayed behind. One loves the people and admires Egan's vigor and sympathy." —Annie Dillard, author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
"The American West got lucky when Tim Egan focused his acute powers of observation on its past and present. Egan's remarkable combination of clear analysis and warm empathy anchors his portrait of the women and men who held on to their places—and held on to their souls—through the nearly unimaginable miseries of the Dust Bowl. This book provides the finest mental exercise for people wanting to deepen, broaden, and strengthen their thinking about the relationship of human beings to this earth." —Patricia N. Limerick, author of The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West
had been a monumental failure to settle this part of the world and that all the conservation measures and tree planting could not bring life back. People had killed this land by their own greed and stupidity—and, yes, hubris—and it could not be restored. Let it die. If Roosevelt believed this, he never let on. Standing in the rain, hair wet and suit drenched, he looked radiant. "I think this little shower we have had is a mighty good omen." Thunderous cheers rose, lasting several minutes. It
Barrick and his story from oral history interview with Barrick, recorded January 7, 1983, on file at the Oklahoma Historical Society, Oral History Program, author visit September 6, 2003. First dust storm details from federal government's Monthly Weather Review, January 1932, www.history.noaa.gov. Approaching storms and social conditions from The Dust Bowl: An Agricultural and Social History, R. Douglas Hurt (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1981). White family details from author interview with Melt
convinced they had tapped into a vein of life-giving fluid that would never give out. Don't just look at the grass and sky, they were advised; imagine a vast lake just below the surface. "No purer water ever came out of the ground," a real estate brochure circulating through the Panhandle in 1908 claimed. "The supply is inexhaustible." In trying to come to terms with a strange land, perhaps the biggest fear was fire. The combination of wind, heat, lightning, and combustible grass was nature's
"It is not a pretty picture but there is a certain satisfaction in staying with it," McCarty wrote. People had been lured to one of the last open spaces left on the American map by extravagant claims of water and prosperity. Was it too late to simply call them back, to admit that the nesters had been duped and the land raped? McCarty thought that by turning the argument around—by saying that dust storms were nature at its glorious extreme and the people living amid them virtuous—he could keep
school. Among the nine children in the Osteen family, Ike alone had stayed with the books to his senior year. His brother Oscar didn't see much use for education. Even after Black Sunday, when most of the next year people stopped counting on the future as a way out, Oscar Osteen held out hope of making something from the family land. They had a couple of mules, a barn, the buried tractor. There was always a chance Oscar could wake up one morning and the dunes would be gone, unveiling fields ready