The Worst Hard Time

Stories of those who moved out of the plains states during the Dust Bowl are reasonably well-known through John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939) as well as other sources. Here, Timothy Egan introduces the inhabitants who stayed in the region during and after the Dust Bowl period. He does so by tracing the lives of several families and individuals through that trying time. To research this work, Egan interviewed family members and studied diaries, notes, and self-published books left by others. He also studied the newspapers and other public records of the time. He focused on the area hardest hit by the Dust Bowl: the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas, western Kansas, a sliver of southwestern Nebraska, and adjacent southeastern Colorado, an area he calls the southern high plains.

Using a basically chronological approach, he gives the background for each family and individual, takes them through the 1920’s, when sufficient rain fell to support crops, and then spends most of the book relating their experiences during the Dust Bowl years (essentially the 1930’s). He weaves their varied experiences together with Dust Bowl events into a unified report in which the challenges of that time and place, and the courage and resilience of the people involved, come through. The hopelessness of their situation during the Dust Bowl decade is also projected. Just reading about dust storm after dust storm and the effect on humans and their living space wears one out. How much more wearing must it have been to live through those events? Add to that the crop failures and animal losses, year after year, and one wonders why anyone stayed in that environment. The book ends with an epilogue in which the post-Dust Bowl fates of the primary protagonists and the region are described.

According to Egan, even during the good years people who moved to the southern plains were victimized by the government and land speculators. Homesteaders were abandoning their homesteads in the northern plains at the same time that the government was encouraging homesteading on the southern plains. In both cases the homesteads available were too small, and the government’s advice that the grass be plowed and grain planted was questionable. This inappropriate guidance was probably unintentional, resulting from the government basing policy on the absence of correct information. However, it is not clear from the text that Egan thinks the government’s encouragement was entirely a product of innocent ignorance. Land agents, on the other hand, certainly practiced intentional deceit much of the time. In one example, in Boise City (the name means Tree City), Oklahoma, the agents showed potential buyers pictures of a nicely organized community of well-built houses surrounded by mature trees and served by a productive well and multiple railroads. They sold plots to would-be farmers (called nesters) on the basis of these pictures and a convenient set of accompanying lies. When the nesters arrived at the site they found no town, no well, no railroads, no trees, and no representative of the land company. They stayed anyway, built a town on the site, enjoyed the relatively good times of the 1920’s, and then suffered through the Dust Bowl that followed.

Based on descriptions from his sources, Egan presents the dust storms, or dusters, as brutal, devastating events, and the duster of Black Sunday, April 14, 1935, as the worst of a decade of bad storms. It started along a weather front in the Dakotas and swept south to Texas. The air within the duster was so full of dirt and sand particles that visibility was minimal and breathing was difficult. The wind velocity reached 65 miles per hour, maybe more. It knocked exposed people and animals to the ground, disoriented them, and suffocated some. Egan suggests that the duster of Black Sunday was like a tornado on its side, the winds rotating vertically, perpendicular to the ground, rather than horizontally, parallel to the ground, as in a standard tornado.

Egan connects the broader history of the West with his story. He briefly introduces John Wesley Powell, who many believe had the correct strategy for western settlement. Powell warned that the arid west...

(The entire section is 1721 words.)


Booklist 102, no. 8 (December 15, 2005): 14.

The Boston Globe, January 18, 2006, p. F6.

Chicago Sun-Times, February 5, 2006, p. B9.

The Christian Science Monitor, January 10, 2006, p. 13.

Los Angeles Times, January 29, 2006, p. R9.

The New York Times 155 (December 17, 2005): B9-B14.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 47 (November 28, 2005): 42-43.

San Francisco Chronicle, January 8, 2006, p. M1.

The Seattle Times, December 25, 2005, p. K10.

Smithsonian 36, no. 12 (March, 2006): 110-111.

USA Today Magazine 135 (July, 2006): 81.

The Washington Post, January 29, 2006, p. T09.