The Worst Hard Time
In this work of non-fiction Timothy Egan expresses his wish for sounder government policy to avoid natural disasters. Egan’s The Worst Hard Time is a harrowing tale about farmers who decided to stay on the plains stretching across Texas’ panhandle, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Colorado during the major drought in the 1930’s. The disaster, known as the Dust Bowl, is largely regarded as a human caused problem. Egan, who is a national correspondent on environmental issues for the New York Times, expertly incorporates historical facts from the time with real accounts from those who stayed.
Although Egan sees farming as the direct cause of the drought, winds, and dust, he portrays his characters as hardy entrepreneurs who were duped onto unsustainable farm-land. These individuals, who were known as “Sod-busters”, started moving into the area during the 1800s when federal government was selling land for next to nothing. They quickly tore up huge regions of recently settled grass-land to plant wheat. This quick change in topography caused high winds to blow off top soil that had been accumulating over millennia.
High temperatures and dust storms ravaged the area killing animals and humans in its wake for most of the ‘30s. On April 14, 1935 the region saw its worst dust storm which rained more than 300,000 tons of dirt and dust. This day became known as Black Sunday because those who witnessed it said it blotted out the sun. The dry grass became fuel for praire fires that were sparked by lightning. Swarms of grasshoppers and rabbits plagued the region. In one story Egan describes a story in which the bunnies are brutally beaten while they’re assailants are still dressed in the Sunday best.
The worst effect was the endless wind and dust. One young mother, Hazel Shaw, lost her baby daughter and grandmother within hours of each other to dust pneumonia. Using personal stories such as this, Egan tries to point out that this disaster could have been prevented with more cautious government policy. Egan portrays his characters as innocent victims of railroad companies and the government. However, as the situation got worse no one told them that their promises where founded on speculation.
Egan describes how Germans, who had been lured to Russia by Catherine the Great to serve as a human buffer from the Turks, headed for the American plains when her promise of free land and no taxes was found to be false. One such man was George Ehrilich. He didn’t “flee the czar’s army, survive a hurricane at sea and live through homegrown hatred caused by the Great War just to abandon 160 acres of Oklahoma that belonged to him and his 10 American-born children”. In stories like this Egan portrays his characters as resilient and even stubborn. To survive they did what they had to do but did not give up on their dreams.
Egan follows the stories of families that move into new lands in the region that rarely turned out worthwhile. In one story a family moves to an inhospitable area after grueling journey. Upon arrival their horses fell over dead and their owners were forced to drink the blood from a sows ear to stay alive. Egan expertly incorporates facts and vivid stories to gain sympathy for hard working Americans and reveal the root cause of the Dust Bowl. Hopefully Egan can reach enough people that control government policy to prevent another catastrophe like the Dust Bowl.