The Great American Dust Bowl
Review of The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan.
Egan’s Worst Hard Time is intriguing and largely well done, if a bit relentless. Granted, he’s writing about a phenomenon that dragged on for years, repeatedly raising and dashing ever-slimmer hopes. But if the people who lived the “Dust Bowl” years were literally worn out, Egan needed to do something more with the material than recreate that sensation.
Toward the last third of the book, in particular, a kind of sameness creeps into the narrative, as if Egan didn’t really know what else to say — which I suspect is connected to my sense that he relied too much on too few sources (including a diary that he overuses) — and his slightly jerky style gets distracting (he’s not a great one for writing transitions). For me, one significant failing is that Egan never explains, in any specific way, the origin and cause of the “black dusters” and other freakish weather phenomena of the “Dust Bowl” era. He tells us that the dust storms came because the topsoil had been carved off by overfarming (and then aggravated by the abandonment of unsuccessful farms), but a meteorological or ecological explanation – even a nontechnical one – wouldn’t have been a bad idea.
His description of the CCC efforts at re-grassing the plains similarly left me with questions that he doesn’t answer: Given that the dust storms continued unabated throughout the effort, what was the government’s strategy for protecting the newly planted grass during the time it would have taken for it to mature enough to hold the soil? And how did they water it? In addition, I’d have appreciated a more substantive “bring us up to date” chapter at the end that explained more clearly what happened in the wake of the human and policy failures of the Dust Bowl.
Nor, in fact, would a little class analysis have hurt — other than wagging a kind of general finger at get-rich schemes perpetrated both by private interests and by the government, Egan seems careful not to accuse anybody too directly of creating an ecological disaster, of killing or maiming (psychologically and literally) tens of thousands of people, or of engaging in a kind of class warfare that embodied the ferocious social Darwinism of Depression-era capitalism.
Finally, I’d just point out that the book isn’t really the story of “survivors” of the Dust Bowl; there are essentially no survivors, and this is no movie-of-the-week tale of grit, courage, and heroism that win out in the end. The people Egan follows are bleak and broken, and their desperation is palpable. Worst Hard Time begs the question: Is there any redemption? I think Egan knows there was none, but he seems loathe to say it in so many words.