“The Worst Hard Time” by Timothy Egan

by Melannie Svoboda SND on August 24, 2020

I just finished an incredible book: The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. Written in 2006, the book tells “the untold story of those who survived the Great American Dust Bowl.” You might be asking, “Why read such a depressing book during a global pandemic, Melannie? Couldn’t you pick something more upbeat?”

Farmer with his two sons, Cimarron County, OK 1936.

I read it for two main reasons. First, Timothy Egan, whose research is exemplary, makes history come alive. He puts you into the story. Second, I was hoping this true story about “a worst hard time” in American history could shed a light on the current “worst hard time” we are living through.

First, a few facts. The Dust Bowl affected 100,000,000 acres in primarily five states: Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas. It was caused by both natural and human-made factors. By nature, that area was subject to regular drought and constant high winds. For thousands of years, though, the prairie grass had evolved to anchor the topsoil in the vast expanse. The human factor that caused the Dust Bowl was this: farmers, at the urging of the government, began plowing under the prairie grass to grow mainly wheat. In the 1920’s, the so-called “wet years,” American farmers grew more wheat than the world had ever seen.

Dust storm, Stratford, TX, 1936.

Then in 1929 the Great Depression hit. The world market for wheat dried up, and that record crop of wheat mostly rotted in storage bins. Next came the drought. From 1930-1941 hardly any rain fell in the area. Consequently, the naturally occurring winds began to peel off the topsoil and carry it away. Egan describes one of the worst “black blizzards” in May 1934: People looked northwest and saw a ragged-topped formation on the move, covering the horizon. The air crackled with electricity. Snap. Snap Snap. Birds screeched and dashed for cover. As the black wall approached, car radios clicked off, overwhelmed by the static. Ignitions shorted out. Waves of sand, like ocean water rising over a ship’s prow, swept over roads. Cars went into ditches. A train derailed.

Vehicles and machinery buried in dust in South Dakota.

Egan continues: The storm carried twice as much dirt as was dug out of the earth to create the panama canal. The canal took seven years to dig; the storm lasted a single afternoon. That storm was two miles high and traveled 2,000 miles. It carried dust to Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalo, and New York City. The prairie dirt enshrouded the State of Liberty and dusted ships that were 300 miles from shore. It covered the U.S. capitol, getting the attention of Congress and the American people to the catastrophe occurring on the plains.

Egan focuses on particular families, many who stayed and managed to survive. Some of the people he interviewed were teenagers at the time. Through countless interviews and even diaries, Egan humanizes the story. You admire the people’s strength, their hard work, their watching out for one another. The dust that surrounded them was deadly. Many suffered coughing spasms, asthma, shortness of breath, bronchitis, influenza. “Dust pneumonia” killed hundreds, especially infants, children, and the elderly.

The dust was everywhere. It was impossible to keep it out of their homes. It covered floors, curtains, tables, dishes, bedding, cribs. At times the sand was so deep outside (ten feet or more), it buried fence posts, cars, and even houses. Farmers could grow nothing. Much of their livestock starved to death. When the people’s food ran out, some survived by eating canned tumbleweed.

Florence Owens Thompson, mother of seven who migrated to CA to find work picking crops. (Famous photo by Dorothea Lange)

What light did the book shed for me on contemporary times? Three things. One critic wrote, “The Worst Hard Times is a powerful cautionary tale about the dangers of trifling with nature.” I wondered, have we learned that lesson or are we currently creating other environmental disasters? Who is making the decisions and laws to protect our environment? Second, the book describes the courageous journalists who went to the area and were totally horrified by what they saw–especially so many American families living in holes in the ground and on the verge of starvation. Their powerful writing and incredible photographs brought the disaster to the attention of the American people and the government. I found myself cheering for our free press.

And third, I marveled at the immediate and specific action the government took to try to bring relief. FDR’s New Deal addressed some of the key issues of the Depression and the Dust Bowl. Remember, in 1930 there were no unemployment benefits, no social security, no food stamps. The New Deal, though not perfect, immediately began to provide relief for the people and to explore ways to restore the land—following the latest scientific research. When FDR visited the area in July 1938, he was welcomed as a hero. Ironically, the day he arrived in his open car and stood on the outdoor stage to give his speech, it rained! But the rain didn’t seem to dampen his spirits nor anyone else’s.

USA Today called Egan’s book “a great read.” I couldn’t agree more. The book also made me wonder: In the future, who will write the definitive book about our current hard times? What will the book say about us, the people who lived during this age of the Covid-19 pandemic?

Did anything in this reflection strike you?

Do any of the photos give you pause?

Do you think we’ve learned lessons to prevent environmental disasters–or are we creating other environmental disasters right now?

Suggestion: Appreciate and give thanks for every drop of water you use today.

Water is a powerful symbol in our faith tradition. It recalls our Baptism and Jesus’ promise to give us Living Water. This song celebrates water. It’s called “Holy Water” and is sung by We the Kingdom.

Please feel free to respond below to this reflection, the photos, the video, or the responses of other readers.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Ed Johnson August 24, 2020 at 6:02 am

Sister Melannie,
I read Mr. Egan’s book a few years ago. As you say, a great read; he’s an excellent story teller (like someone else we all know!?). Dorothea Lange was hired by the federal arts project to travel the country, photographing people and places during the Great Depression. Her iconic “Migrant Mother” image is her most well known. She had an amazingly creative talent. I think some of the great stories of this era are from the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration. Among many projects, the CCC planted thousands of trees in the Midwest, serving as windbreaks. One of the famous WPA projects was the early construction of the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway, portions of which were finished just a few years ago. Thanks, Sister. I’ve included a link which should connect to Dorothea Lange’s images. “Holy Water”……Awesome song! Peace and Blessings to all.

https://www.historyplace.com/unitedstates/lange/index.html

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Melannie Svoboda SND August 24, 2020 at 6:54 am

Ed, Thank you for the link to Dorothea Lange’s photos. I checked it out and was very moved by her photos. She really captured the human side of the Dust Bowl and the vast migrations of people looking for work… Melannie

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John Hopkins August 24, 2020 at 6:33 am

Good morning, Sr. Melannie…
Good morning, all…

What an amazing review of what sounds like an amazing book! Thank you, Sr. Melannie!

What comes to mind? So much! I know that when John Steinbeck witnessed the devastation of the Dust Bowl it was during the month of May, and he was so moved by what he saw that he started writing The Grapes of Wrath. By October he was finished! He wanted the country to know!

And then there’s right now and California is burning. We have to ask: Has climate change exacerbated what’s going on in that state? How much of climate change is man-made? Is the deregulation of fossil fuel emissions for the sake of “economic growth” worth the loss of lives, homes, and maybe even the Redwoods? I read that the other day the temperature in Death Valley hit 130 degrees! Perhaps the hottest temperature recorded on earth!

Okay, I’ll stop and end with the words of the most hopeful person I know, Pope Francis: “The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home” (Laudato Si).

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Melannie Svoboda SND August 24, 2020 at 7:02 am

John, Yes, Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” is a haunting book about the families forced to leave their states in search of work. During that time, all these migratory people were called “Okies” in a disparaging way–no matter which state they were from. Steinbeck’s book focuses on those who fled the area. Egan’s book centers on those who stayed or who moved to places nearby… And thank you for raising good questions about some very current issues… And thanks for the hopeful words of Pope Francis… Melannie

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Rene Weeks, OP August 24, 2020 at 6:58 am

I read Egan’s book a number of years ago from a very personal point of view and interest. I am a Kansas native, and my mother’s family lived in western Kansas and experienced the worst of the Dust Bowl years. Through sheer grit and perseverance they stayed on the land and survived until the situation improved (land which still remains in our family).
I appreciate your reflection on these “worst of hard times” and their amazing relevance to the times in which we live. I wonder what future generations will make of us and our decisions during these times.

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Melannie Svoboda SND August 24, 2020 at 7:06 am

Rene,
I just had to respond. I can’t imagine the strength your mother’s family must have had to survive those hard, hard times…I agree that those times do have an “amazing relevance” for the times in which we live. Like you, I wonder what future generations will think of us and the decisions we are making today… Thanks for writing!… Melannie

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Kathleen August 24, 2020 at 7:08 am

Good Morning Everyone!

The photos definitely gave me pause. I had no idea about the “black blizzard” of 1934. Our Mother Earth has been crying out in pain for so many decades. Climate change is a real issue but so many refuse to acknowledge the science.

Pope Francis (a chemist by training) really keeps bringing us back to the sanctity of creation. Laudato Si is such a groundbreaking document.

God bless!
Kathleen

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Pat F August 24, 2020 at 11:22 am

I have not read the book…but intend to..have seen the Grapes of Wrath movie…reading abt and experiencing …each one resulting in a different impact on the individual…reading abt..one can close the book anytime…experiencing…the book stays open as it is being written…
The comfort….Our Dear Lord is the Author…

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Nancy Jumper August 24, 2020 at 12:09 pm

Good morning, Sister!
I was so intrigued with your enthusiasm for Timothy Eagan’s book that I ordered it from Amazon already. Thanks for the recommendation.
Also, thank you for meeting with my Free to Be group on Thursday over Zoom! It was a delightful discussion. We have all loved your book. I’m anxious to read another one. Which one would you recommend next?
Blessings, Nancy

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Shirley August 24, 2020 at 12:47 pm

A very interesting blog. I remember my Dad talking about the dirty 30’s. He was raised in Kansas as was I. He said walking to school they tied a handkerchief across their nose and mouth and by the time they got to school it was black. They would wash it out so they could wear it home in the afternoon. I think I will get that book and read it.
Thanks so much for your blog.

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Judy Welle August 24, 2020 at 1:06 pm

Timothy Egan is a wonderful writer! Thank you for sharing the book. I will add it to my list. I just finished reading The Big Burn by him. It is also excellent and an important read for those of us who live in the fire prone Pacific Northwest. Another book by him that I really enjoyed is about a famous photographer whose goal was to capture all of the native American tribes before so many of their traditional lifestyles were lost. It is Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher; the life of Edward Curtis. Thank you for your wonderful blog! I hope your move has gone well. Stay safe!

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Melannie Svoboda SND August 24, 2020 at 3:35 pm

Dear Judy, I wrote a reflection on Egan’s book, “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher” and posted it on this blog on September 2, 2019. If anyone wants to read that review of another of his incredible books, just go to search at the right on this page and type in Timothy Egan and the post comes up. Thanks, Judy, for directing our attention to two more of Egan’s books… Melannie

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Tom August 24, 2020 at 1:29 pm

Dear Melannie,

I followed the link Dorothea Lange’s website and was struck by the propaganda of that era: a highway billboard that read: ” Highest Standard of Living in the World- There’s No Way Like The American Way!” Delusion appears to always be the first defense against any crisis.

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Barb August 24, 2020 at 7:05 pm

Hello Sister,
Thank you for another good book recommendation. Speaking of our environment I always check second hand stores to see if they have it available. Thrift books is one of my favorites. There is also a good documentary on the dust bowl on PBS. Hopefully we can learn from the past. Praying for your move.

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LindaMary August 24, 2020 at 8:10 pm

I always find the photo of Florence Owens Thompson upsetting. There is so much happening in that picture..the desperation on her face, the two children hiding their faces and a baby in her arms. Everyone is dirty. I often wonder what happened to her and her family..did it all work out?
Beautiful song!

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Jean Canatsey August 25, 2020 at 8:38 am

Dear Sister Melannie,
“The Worst Hard Time” certainly fits my mood today since we are preparing to bury our grandson, Aaron, who died last Thursday of a Heroin overdose. It is “the worst hard time” for our family.
Thank you for the book review. We have already put it on hold at our library. I love Egan’s books and read “ Short Night of the Shadow Catcher” after you reviewed it. I have to wonder why we weren’t given these details of the Dust Bowl in history class.

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Melannie Svoboda SND August 25, 2020 at 8:56 am

Dear Jean, My deepest sympathy to you and your family on the death of your grandson. I can’t begin to imagine your pain. I join with the readers of this blog in prayer for him, you, and his family… Melannie

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