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The Worst Hard Time

The untold story of those who survived the great American Dust Bowl

By Timothy Egan
Houghton Mifflin, $28
Reviewed by Kathleen Burke

Even today, writes Timothy Egan, the daunting expanse of this nation's southern plains "scares people in the way that a big house can haunt after the lights go out." It is a landscape that intimidates, he says, largely as a consequence of "forced intimacy with a place that gives nothing back to a stranger." In his magisterial history of the region that came to be known as the Dust Bowl—the area encompassing the high plains of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico—Egan evokes a portrait of an all but forgotten land. It was there, in the darkest hours of the Great Depression, that a decade-long series of dust storms ravaged the land and the settlers who tried to claim it.

Homesteaders thronged to the high plains—once one of the world's great grasslands—during the 1920s, lured by cheap land and rising wheat prices. As farmers plowed the prairie in their tractors—then coming into general use—they stripped the soil of the sod that had anchored it for millennia.

In the early 1930s, the dust blizzards began. Ultimately, the storms laid bare more than 100 million acres, an area the size of Pennsylvania. By 1935, some 250,000 Americans had been forced from their no longer cultivatable farms.

In 2002, Egan set out on an extraordinary odyssey, determined to record the experiences of Dust Bowl survivors before their eyewitness accounts were lost to history. His intention was to document a largely untold chapter in American history: the stories of those who—unable or unwilling to abandon their hard-won farms and towns—had not fled. As Egan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter, would discover, "nearly two-thirds of the Dust Bowl inhabitants hunkered down and lived through the Dirty Thirties," at a time when there was "no food from the land, no jobs during the Depression, no money from the government until much later." Egan traveled highways and back roads to towns and ranches, family farms and local historical societies, determined to preserve a "remarkable tale that should be part of our shared national story."

As people opened their doors and their lives to him, Egan resurrected a sorrowful, yet heroic, past. Ike Osteen, for instance, today a 90-year-old retired farmer, lived through the bad years in an earth-and-plank dugout with his widowed mother and eight siblings, nearly starving, choking as dust sifted into their lungs. When Osteen completed high school, the only child in his family to do so, he turned the diploma over to his mother. "Mama: I still don't think I'm as smart as you," he told the woman who was holding the family together. "Not one bit."

Egan also pays tribute to Hugh Hammond Bennett, a lone visionary whose signal achievement remains largely unacknowledged. Appointed by President Roosevelt, agronomist Bennett headed up what came to be known as Operation Dust Bowl. It was this outsider's passionate belief that grasslands must be restored on the plains and that destructive farming practices must be ended altogether. He conceived a plan that would reintroduce prairie grasses on more than 600,000 acres. His legacy, Egan writes, is an enduring one: Bennett's "soil conservation districts spread throughout America" constitute "the only New Deal grassroots operation that survives to this day."

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