Thursday, November 27, 2014

Review: The Worst Hard Time

The Worst Hard Time
From The Worst Hard Time, by Adam Johnson:
Open quote 

Ike Osteen's life spans the flu epidemic of 1918, the worst depression in American history, and a world war that ripped apart the globe. Nothing compares to the black dusters of the 1930s, he says, a time when the simplest thing in life -- taking a breath -- was a threat."

After the jump, my review.

Grade: B-

This book makes a fitting companion to Empire of the Summer Moon, by S.C. Gwynne. That book told the story of the Comanche nation, masters of the southern Great Plains with its immense herds of bison. That book ends with white settlers supplanting the Comanche, in part by exterminating the bison they depended on. Once the bison and Comanche were gone, the cowboys turned the grassland over to cattle ranching.

The Worst Hard Time picks up the story with the arrival of the homesteaders, so-called nesters, who fenced off the rangeland and broke the sod to plant wheat and other crops. With good rainfall and a boom in demand fed by war in Europe, millions of acres of grassland were plowed up in the early 1900s. When the hard times came because of the Great Depression, a bust in the wheat market, and a devastating drought, much of that plowed land was simply abandoned. Missing its cover of grass, the earth was left to blow in the wind. The Dust Bowl.

Egan seeks out the stories of those nesters who lived through the hard times. Their hardships are inconceivable to us today. The dust storms blew for days on end, turning day into night, killing livestock and people, burying tractors and farm houses, blocking roads and derailing trains. As 1933 turns into 1934 turns into 1935 and the desperate situation doesn't improve, in fact gets worse, Egan's stories begin to sound repetitive. That may be more the fault of the times than Egan's writing, but the depressing story does bog down as the disaster itself bogs down. But it's not like the book title promised readers anything other than the story of the worst hard time.

It wasn't climate change that caused the drought that triggered the Dust Bowl. Encouraging homesteading, plowing up the grasslands, practicing unsustainable farming methods were all at fault. "Mistaken public policies have been largely responsible for the situation," said a New Deal report. A reluctance to accept that news ran deep. Many nesters wore blinders. A common attitude was, "All they needed were a couple of steady soakers, and the land would spring back, green and frisky." Those nesters who stuck it out through the worst hard time, rather than, say, head to California, had nothing but hope to sustain them.

Egan's story is an important one for all Americans to read. But it's particularly important for Texans. Once again, dealing with drought is critical to the state's future. Today's generation has its own blinders, starting with denial of anthropogenic climate change, leading to our own unsustainable land use practices. Understanding the history of the land is key to avoid the mistakes that led to so much human hardship during the Dust Bowl years. The Worst Hard Time makes that history personal.

The ebook in Kindle format is available for free from the Richardson Public Library.

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