Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan -- Book Review


Book Description: "The dust storms that terrorized the High Plains in the darkest years of the Depression were like nothing ever seen before or since. Timothy Egan’s critically acclaimed account rescues this iconic chapter of American history from the shadows in a tour de force of historical reportage. Following a dozen families and their communities through the rise and fall of the region, Egan tells of their desperate attempts to carry on through blinding black dust blizzards, crop failure, and the death of loved ones. Brilliantly capturing the terrifying drama of catastrophe, Egan does equal justice to the human characters who become his heroes, “the stoic, long-suffering men and women whose lives he opens up with urgency and respect” (New York Times).

In an era that promises ever-greater natural disasters, The Worst Hard Time is “arguably the best nonfiction book yet” (Austin Statesman Journal) on the greatest environmental disaster ever to be visited upon our land and a powerful cautionary tale about the dangers of trifling with nature."

This was a very interesting and informative read---I learned a few things and definitely had a shift of perspective about this time in history. I'd been told that my great grandmother and her family went through the Dust Bowl but looking at the timeline compared to where they were doing those years, it looks like they were probably more financially affected by the lack of work than by the bulk of the dust storms themselves. Her family left Beaver County, Oklahoma (in the heart of the Dust Bowl) in the 1920s and went east to Enid (east of the worst of it by a couple hundred miles, according to this book). So they were out of there long before the dusters started hitting, but definitely would have felt the financial fall out of that mixed with the other effects of the Great Depression. From what I can tell, that family began to move west to Oregon in the early 1950s, with my great-grandmother arriving within 10 years of that.

Reading about the beginning of the depression reminded me of last summer when the government was buying truckloads of produce from farmers and distributing it free all over the country due to the effects of COVID. As much as I say I don't want to rely on the govt. for anything, it was sad and a little scary to read about what these people went through before the advent of govt. aid. I suppose I'm appreciative that the help is there for those who need it, but I also think it's heavily abused and should be more strictly regulated.

I was surprised that more mention wasn't made of the correlation between the "plagues" suffered during this time and the Exodus plagues. I imagine that was hot on most minds, being the Bible belt and all. I also learned that "No Man's Land" is a real place!

I was surprised by the naiveté of many who tried all kinds of strange things to induce rain. Scientific methods of the time included dynamiting the sky, plowing to create atmospheric disturbances, laying out dead snakes on fences, and trusting the steam from trains to make the skies weep. In addition to that, I think there was a bit of ignorance in Washington about how big of an area they were dealing with. One solution to the problem of blowing dust was to just asphalt the entire Great Plains, and Roosevelt had the brainy idea to plant a forest over the entire area to change the climate. Oy!

But speaking of naive... I was really interested and surprised to learn how big of an issue static electricity was during the storms. I didn't realize it built up with such strength as to make a couple of friends fall over shaking hands!

This was a super interesting read and really caused me to think about the things I freak out about nowadays. Nothing I've ever gone through compares to the things these brave (and maybe stubborn?) people went through. 

The Worst Hard Time fulfills the following challenges: The Historical Reading Challenge at The Intrepid Reader and two challenges for the Brighter Winter Reading Program.


  1. I've never heard about this book before.

    Dynamiting the sky and laying out dead snakes on fences to induce rain? Wow! This book sounds both informative and strange.

    1. Yes, we humans can sure come up with some silly ideas!