I came for the social history. I stayed for the weather porn.
The Worst Hard Time is New York Times reporter Timothy Egan’s historical account of the Dust Bowl and the people who lived through this country’s worst extended environmental disaster on record. The term “Dust Bowl” refers both to a region that extends from the southwestern corner of Nebraska down through western Kansas, eastern Colorado and New Mexico, and into the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles, and to a collective weather phenomenon, the dust storms that tore out the southern Great Plains’ topsoil over and over again and blew “black blizzards” from roughly 1933 to 1937.
This climate catastrophe was almost entirely man-made. As late as the turn of the 20th century this regional ecosystem was in relatively perfect balance. The buffalo (and the American Indians who hunted them) had been removed from the plains by this time, but they had been replaced for the most part by cattle ranches. The native grasses that held the soil in place remained. This is not an insignificant point. People tried to get rich quick by plowing this part of the plains under to plant wheat when World War I caused the price of that commodity to spike, and it profoundly upset the ecological balance that had been in place for eons.
The Dust Bowl region historically received less than 20 inches of rain a year. The late teens and early 1920s were unusually wet, but when drought hit in the 1930s the ecological destruction reached a tipping point. Winds, which were strong even in a normal year, tore out the plowed topsoil, which created dust storms, which created a chain reaction that seemed to cause the storms to intensify. Americans of the time tended to blame the storm on the fickleness of Mother Nature, but they could have blamed it on their own hubris–which was supported by the federal government’s homesteading policy. The New Deal’s Soil Conservation Service (remember when people understood that government could solve problems, as well as cause them?) began to right the ship.
Egan says that he wrote the book to give voice to the people who weathered these storms. He succeeds in doing that, and uncovers some true American originals. But the most compelling character in the drama by far is the storm that seems to happen in an endless film loop over a span of years. It’s just about impossible to exaggerate how devastating these storms were, and the statistics Egan throws out every so often throughout the narrative are mind-boggling. Here’s one representative example: in the year 1935 alone, dust storms ripped out the equivalent of 8 tons worth of topsoil for every man, woman, and child in the United States from the Dust Bowl and deposited it… god knows where (mostly, it appears, in the Atlantic Ocean). The people affected by the Dust Bowl didn’t receive much attention from the powers that be until a freakish 1934 dust storm system traveled all the way to the East Coast and browned out New York and D.C.
As an academic historian I’m forced to tut-tut a bit about calling this a “history.” Egan did a great deal of research for this book, much of it in regional archives, and his book is much richer for the local flavor he culls from oral histories (in addition to his own interviews) with Dust Bowl survivors. But, like another great writer in this genre, Erik Larson, he has the habit of “reproducing” conversations that took place decades ago between real historical people, even though he wasn’t there to hear the conversations and no one else recorded them. So these “reproduced” conversations aren’t really historical, but they’re clearly not fictional, either. (For an interesting discussion of Larson’s speculation-as-history, see this excerpt of an op-ed that first appeared in the Chicago Tribune.)
I’m content to call this a “non-fiction narrative” that deserves all of the awards it has received and leave it at that. I would recommend the book to anyone interested in American social history during the Great Depression and anyone thinking about climate change and man’s effects thereon. Above all, if I say “Jennifer Lopez” and this is who you think of first, The Worst Hard Time is definitely the book for you.