The Worst Hard Time

I’m nearly finished with Timothy Egan’s book The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the American Dust Bowl, and I highly recommend it, especially as it looks, increasingly, as if the Dust Bowl may be happening once again. (See this New York Times article–top emailed today.)

{via Wikipedia. South Dakota, 1936}
{via Wikipedia. South Dakota, 1936}

As with In the Heart of the Sea, I must confess that part of the pleasure of stories like this are the sense of relief that what is happening in the book isn’t currently happening to me. It’s not schadenfreude, exactly–I’m not enjoying the misfortunes of others, quite the opposite, actually–it’s more that such stories remind me that the small stuff that worries or bothers me is exactly that. Or, as a friend said in a recent email:

“reading of hideous events is very therapeutic.  One inevitably realizes that the usual stuff we deal with really isn’t all that bad.  Compared to sucking marrow out of a friend’s bones, even my worst days are pretty good…”


The thing that gets me about The Worst Hard Time, though, is that the Dust Bowl wasn’t just a ‘natural’ disaster. It was a disaster naturally arising from turning grassland–perfect pasture for bison, and, later, cattle–into cropland. In other words, it’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of being too presumptuous in using and abusing the earth.

(And some good insight into American politics and business. Oh, for another FDR!)

Woody Guthrie wrote “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You” after seeing an approaching dust storm while working in a panhandle root beer/hooch stand. He, like many others, thought these storms were probably signalling the end of the world. With that in mind, the song actually seems pretty cheery.

Which is, in a twisted way, how reading this book has been for me.

5 thoughts on “The Worst Hard Time

  1. Dear Rachel,
    Our drought in the West and Midwest continues. The latest article I read about Syria strongly suggests that water wars led to the civil war that has splintered Syria and led to the loss of more than 80,000 lives. Food prices may continue to go up in the U.S., even with farm subsidies, as some crops will be scarce. It seems we may be living through another dust bowl. I have read predictions that the drought in the Western U.S. will continue for another three years. I would be interested in hearing from readers who live in the affected areas and also your opinion of our immediate future.
    Egan’s book is now on my long list. After yours, of course!

    1. I have heard this very thing–and there’s a NYTimes article on it (#1 most emailed). If only the past were truly past. Unfortunately it isn’t. And the observation that drought and other extreme hardships brought on by scarcity and often, from mismanagement of natural resources leads often to conflict is unfortunately too true. That’s one reason why Professor Wangari Maathai was given a Nobel Peace Prize for her tree-planting projects in Kenya and elsewhere: because managing natural resources well is one of the things that makes for peace.

  2. OK, first off I’d like to work in a root beer/hooch stand.

    But what you really got me thinking about is my college History of California class. We read Grapes of Wrath, and the professor made the hardships of the Dust Bowl and the life of those who came to California looking for a better life come alive. Like you, I didn’t take pleasure in comparing my life to theirs. But I sure took pleasure in just how good I have it now in comparison to what they went through.

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