Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Worst Hard Time and The Dust Bowl

"All those short lives..."
-- my 8 year old's reaction to The Dust Bowl by Ken Burns

I've been on a big early-1900s kick lately, from Prohibition and the Great War to the Dust Bowl, the Jazz Age and the Great Depression.  It's been great fun so far - I'm learning so many things! I'm reading The Grapes of Wrath for the first time (no idea how that happened) and always keeping my eyes out for more must-read literature from the years around the 1920s.

One of the most accesible sources I've come across is the PBS documentary, The Dust Bowl.  Ken Burns did a wonderful job giving an intriguing and picturesque overview of the catastrophe.  It left me shocked and amazed, and hungry for more information...some of those pictures and videos are simply unbelievable.

The film wasn't enough for me, so I then read The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan.  This book is about the people who stayed behind, the people who "hunkered down out of loyalty or stubbornness, who believed in tomorrow because it was all they had in the bank."  I have two sets of grandparents that lived through the Dust Bowl and came to reside in Northern California and Oregon, so the struggles described were rather personal for me.
"Nothing that you see or hear or read will be likely to exaggerate the physical discomfort or material losses due to these storms.  Less emphasis is usually given to the mental effect, the confusion of mind resulting from the overthrow of all our plans for improvement or normal farm work, and the difficulty of making other plans, even in a tentative way."
-Caroline Henderson, 1935
One thing that surprised me (for some reason) was the pervasive prejudice.  The book didn't dwell on it, but it's always surprising to me to learn how deep-rooted and equal-opportunity this prejudice is.  Was there ever a time when America was actually the embracing, welcoming, free country that I like to imagine it was?  The 1930s were full of spite for many different groups of people:
  • Black Americans (of course...signs in/near Oklahoma read "Black Men Don't Let the Sun Go Down on You Here") 
  • Native Americans (no surprise...the bison were exterminated "as a way to ensure that no Indian would ever wander the Texas Panhandle") 
  • Volga Germans (others tried to "pass an ordinance prohibiting the language from being spoken in the city limits") 
  • Jews (people said they were "to blame for the bad times - that they did not belong in this country") 
  • Italians ("the 'low grade races' of southern Europe" were a "threat to civilization")
  • Mexicans ("cities were shipping Hispanics out of the country") 
  • the People Who Stayed ("They are simply, by God's inscrutable will, inferior men" -H.L. Mencken)
  • the People Who Left ("Okies and Dogs Not Allowed Inside")
Surprisingly, I don't think the Irish or any Asian countries were mentioned...but then again, this was only one book.

I was impressed by how well The Worst Hard Time was organized.  Continuity and clarity are vital in nonfiction, and Egan does it well.  Not only that, but the people were easy to remember and follow, and the facts were interesting and well-presented.  It's hard to ask for more out of non-fiction!

There are too many interesting things to start talking about all of them (such as the dangers of wind-generated static electricity and dust pneumonia) so I'll just say that if you have a passing interest in the Dust Bowl, both Ken Burns and Timothy Egan have done a great job with such a dry topic. Next up for me (other than Grapes of Wrath) is Whose Names are Unknown by Sanora Babb - excellent reading so far!


  1. When I discovered the Dust Bowl while studying American literature, I was intrigued and shocked at the same time. I can't think of a more suffocating time. I know I would have died, so I can't imagine how others survived.

    Everyone loved the PBS documentary, I should give it a try!

  2. I watched the documentary, it's amazing how little I knew about the Dust Bowl. Horrific. This book sounds great, I'll look it up.


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