Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

The Worst Hard Time is the well-researched and much acclaimed account of the devastating Dust Bowl of the 1930's. It's an unbelievable true story that many Americans really don't know much about; I know I didn't. This arid part of the US from the south edge of Nebraska and down through the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles was settled by pioneers who went there because the land was almost free for the taking, thanks to the government's seizure of Native American lands. When the settlers got there, it was covered in lush grasses. But when WWII hit and more food was needed, everyone became a farmer, tearing up millions of acres to plant in wheat and various other cash crops. People started getting rich quickly with this boom in land and crops - initially. And it drove them to plow up more and more land, shredding up topsoil quicker than you can say "erosion." Then the drought hit. No rain for literally years, and the top soil blew away in a seemingly never-ending chain of dust storms.

So, in this book, the reader is taken through a number of family stories of those who lived and stayed in the Dust Bowl despite its tragedy. And the tragedy of it seems like sci-fi. The pictures look like Mars, not US farmland. Unbelievable stuff.

As a reader, I felt that the facts of the story were extremely interesting, and the book as whole presents a scary, but important cautionary tale about soil conservation. But growing up on an Iowa small farm with a father who understands the true vital importance of such conservation gave me a good background in understanding. There are still farmers stripping the land of its vitality with each crop, just like there are farmers caring nothing about the chemicals they pump into the nation's food supply as long as we are able and "obligated" to "feed the world." The book brings home just how very, very careful we must all be when it comes to Mother Earth.

As a piece of literature, I often find nonfiction extremely dry, and The Worst Hard Time was no exception for me. It was pretty hard to get into and really didn't pick up any excitement until the end when you find out what happened to the families Egan used as examples of the story. But a page-turner it wasn't. I felt the family stories, which were the most interesting, were very unorganized, and therefore the author had to be very repetitive in order to follow them through. I believe it could have been better edited and organized more effectively  to be more readable, especially for a fiction reader; and let's face it, that's what most Americans are. So, it certainly wasn't the dullest nonfiction I've read, but I didn't see it as the masterpiece which it was hailed as by so many. You may disagree. Give it a read and let me know!