Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Worst Hard Time

This is,simply, one of the most gripping books I've ever read.

The Worst Hard Time is the story of the Dust Bowl, a Depression-era nightmare of heat and drought on the High Plains that lasted for nearly a decade and produced hundreds of mammoth dust storms.

Anyone who lives in this country has probably heard the phrase "Dust Bowl," but it's hard to conceive what that actually meant. There are photographs in the book of houses--literally--buried in dust. The people who couldn't (or wouldn't) leave the High Plains would sweep drifts of dust (inches deep) out of their houses almost daily.

Here's an excerpt:
By 1934, the soil was like fine-sifted flour, and the heat made it a danger to go outside many days. In Vinita, Oklahoma, the temperature soared above 100 degrees for thirty-five consecutive days. On the thirty-sixth day, it reached 117. It was a time without air conditioning, of course, a time without even electricity for most farmers in the southern plains.

On the skin, the dust was like a nail file, a grit strong enough to hurt. People rubbed Vadeline in their nostrils as a filter. The Red Cross handed out respiratory masks to schools. Families put wet towels beneath their doors and covered their windows with bed sheets, fresh-dampened nightly.

The storms. They were bigger than hurricanes, and in some years, there were more than a hundred.

Here's a description of the storm that hit on Black Sunday in April 1935:
In the afternoon, the sky went purple--as if it were sick--and the temperature plunged. People looked northwest and saw a ragged-topped formation on the move, covering the horizon. The air crackled with electricity. Snap. Snap. Snap. Birds screeched and dashed for cover. As the black wall approached, car radios clicked off, overwhelmed by the static. Ignitions shorted out. Waves of sand, like ocean water rising over a ship's prow, swept over roads. Cars went into ditches. A train derailed.

...The storm carried twice as much dirt as was dug out of the earth to create the Panama Canal. The canal took seven years to dig; the storm lasted a single afternoon. More than 300,000 tons of Great Plains topsoil was airborne that day.

No crops grew, no grass grew, no cows could be milked. There was nothing. It was a miracle that anyone survived. Here's what it was like in 1933:
The High Plains lay in ruins...There was no color to the land, no crops, in what was the worst growing season anyone had seen. Some farmers had grown spindles of dwarfed wheat and corn, but it was not worth the effort to harvest it. The same Texas Panhandle that had produced six million bushes of wheat just two years ago now gave up just a few truckloads of grain. In one country, 90 percent of the chickens died; the dust had gotten into their systems, choking them or clogging their digestive tracts. Milk cows went dry. Cattle starved or dropped dead from what veterinarians called "dust fever." A reporter toured Cimarron County and found not one blade of grass or wheat.

That was in 1933. The storms and drought went on for five more years.

This book won the National Book Award, and it's easy to see why. Timothy Egan is a masterful writer, and his ability to create a riveting narrative is completely remarkable. There's no way to put this book down once you start it--it's both very intense and deeply moving.

If you are interested in history, or just enjoy great writing, this is a fantastic book.

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