"This is can't-put-it-down history." Walter Cronkite
"Stark and powerful . . . a timely reminder that a Nature abused
can exact a terrible retribution." Kirkus Reviews, starred review
The devastation caused this year by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita serves as a grim reminder of the destructive power of nature and the long-term effects of a single storm. In The Worst Hard Time (Houghton Mifflin; December 14, 2005), Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist Timothy Egan brilliantly captures the untold story of the Dust Bowl, the decade of brutally punishing dust storms that ravaged the American High Plains during the Depression and became the "worst weather event" in American history, through the eyes of those who survived it.
Once one of the greatest grasslands in the world, the High Plains of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico went through a bonanza of overfarming in the 1920s. When the rains stopped and the wind picked up in the early 1930s, the stripped earth began to stir and blow to devastating effect, sending millions of tons of dust across much of the nation. In the High Plains, the power of these blinding black blizzards of dust was such that it was often impossible to "see your hand in front of your face," according to one survivor.
At its peak, the Dust Bowl covered close to one hundred million acres, and more than a quarter of a million Americans were forced to flee their ruined homes. In The Worst Hard Time, Egan follows a diverse cast of individuals and families in communities across the affected region, weaving together the eyewitness accounts of survivors now in their eighties and nineties, including:
Ike Osteen, who survives the Dirty Thirties in a home made of dirt and plank boards, with his widowed mother and eight brothers and sisters;
Bam White and his family, Native Americans who live through the worst of the storms on the edge of town, in the shadows;
John McCarty, a businessman, known as the Dust Bowl Cheerleader, who founds the Last Man Club, an association of people who vow never to flee;
The Doc, a big-hearted, once wealthy man, who ends up a pauper after opening up a soup kitchen;
The Herzsteins, a pioneering Jewish family, who try to maintain the rituals of daily life even after they lose a beloved uncle to a gunslinger;
Hazel Lucas Shaw, who comes to the plains as a teenage bride only to see her baby girl killed by the dust.
The Worst Hard Time captures the full drama, heroism, and terror of this unwritten chapter of the Greatest Generation, a time when the simplest thing in life taking a breath was a threat.
The book is a testament to the power of human perseverance in the face of the most wretched of conditions, as well as a reminder that the environmental catastrophe of the Dust Bowl may be only a preview of what is in store for us in our ever-warming future.
Timothy Egan is a national enterprise reporter for the New York Times. In 2001, he was part of a team of reporters awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the New York Times series exploring racial experiences and attitudes across contemporary America.
Egan is the author of four books, including The Good Rain, a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Book Award winner and regional bestseller for over a decade, and Lasso the Wind, winner of the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award.
He lives in Seattle.