Monday, October 12, 2009

Revisit: The Worst Hard Time - by Timothy Egan

One of the enduring images of the Great Depression is that of the Dust Bowl migrant family heading for any point west, their rickety jalopy packed and heavy with whatever the dust storms hadn't yet destroyed. While this image has been forever etched into Americans' understanding of the Depression - due in no small part to John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Woody Guthrie's songs of the triumphs and tribulations of these Dust Bowl refugees - it's nevertheless a bit misleading. The overwhelming majority of people who experienced the Dust Bowl actually never pulled up their stakes and instead simply did their best to survive this country's worst environmental disaster, as Timothy Egan points out in his stunning and heartbreaking The Worst Hard Time. Originally published in 2006, the book is quite simply historical writing of the best kind: vibrant, engrossing, well researched and carefully crafted.

It's become fashionable for various news media to flippantly compare the United States' current economic recession to that of the Great Depression. Though Egan's book was published well before the economy went into the crapper, the author's exploration of the Depression's causes will sound familiar to contemporary readers: banks loaned massive amounts of money with reckless abandon as settlers across the Great Plains spent wildly, giving very little thought to the possibility of a market downturn or that the bottom would ever fall out. Yet what becomes clear is that no financial plunges or declines in standards of living have yet to even come close to what Dust Bowl families experienced: farms that grew nothing, wheat prices falling until they couldn't get any lower, years without any income, a nearly-five year drought, tumbleweed and thistle for food, dust storms so frequent they practically became part of daily life, dust pneumonia in the lungs. "The dust always found a way in...dust dominated life" Egan writes, later pointing out that the dust storms were sometimes strong enough to carry to New York and even the White House.

Written like a great novel, with none of the monotony and detachment that plague countless historical studies, The Worst Hard Time is essentially an elegy to both those who suffered through the Depression in the heartland as well as the American spirit, with all its flaws, vitality, dignity and contradictions. In this way, Egan points out that the dusters were primarily the result of massive over-plowing, where the once-grassy land was beaten to shit by both well-meaning citizens and "suitcase farmers" interested only in making a killing before leaving town, without losing any sense of sympathy for the Dust Bowl's true victims. Indeed, some of the stories recounted here are the stuff of true tragedy: a Nebraska farmer's diary records his struggle to simply survive and find any meaning in a jobless and joyless life; Russian immigrants desperately try to retain a sense of identity on the unforgiving plains; a Boise City family suffers the death of its matriarch and her youngest great-granddaughter within a few hours of each other.

The Worst Hard Time is far more than just another book about the Depression. While its focus is on those who experienced the Dust Bowl at its harshest and most punishing, its scope is broader and its themes are universal. It's about how Americans ravaged by the Depression coped with an unforgiving landscape fallowed by overzealous farming and its consequences, maintained a sense of dignity and identity against impossible odds and attempted to survive in long-ago places like Dalhart, Texas and Inavale, Nebraska. As the number of Dust Bowl survivors becomes fewer each year, it's likely their story will be relegated to the history books and as fodder for academics. The Worst Hard Time shows that their story, while of a specific time and place, is universal and relevant to modern readers.

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