On an April afternoon in 1935, Hugh Bennett was lecturing a group of U.S. senators on the causes of the Great Plains Dust Bowl. As he spoke, the window darkened as if night were falling. Dust from the Midwestern plains had drifted all the way to the nation's capital and blotted out the sun. "This, gentlemen, is what I'm talking about," said Bennett. "There goes Oklahoma."
Nothing better illustrates the disastrous effects of bad applied science than the dust storms of the 1930s, the complex subject of Timothy Egan's new book, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. Egan tells the story of this disaster through the eyes of those who lived through it—cowboys like Bam White and farmers like Don Hartwell who saw part of rural America literally blown away.
Scientists now say that the Dust Bowl, roughly comprised of western Kansas, southeastern Colorado, northern Texas and the Oklahoma panhandle, should never have been farmed in the first place. The region's topsoil was held in place against constant driving winds only by hardy native grasses. That didn't stop the federal government from bullishly promoting homestead farming throughout the plains in the 1920s. An unusual amount of rain, leading to a short-term agricultural boom, sustained the illusion that the sea of grass could be plowed up and farmed indefinitely. Once the rain stopped, unanchored soil kicked up, suffocating crops and blinding cattle. Farm children died of dust pneumonia; whole towns failed.
Egan debunks some prevalent myths about the Dust Bowl, most of them emanating from Hollywood. The novel Grapes of Wrath and its film version give the impression that most poor farm immigrants (aka Oakies) who moved to California in the 1930s were escapees from the Dust Bowl. Egan notes that, of the 221,000 people who moved to California from 1935 to 1937, only 16,000 were from the Dust Bowl. Films like The Plow that Broke the Plains give the impression that farmers alone were to blame for the disaster, but Egan notes that overgrazing cattle, drought, surplus crops, falling grain prices and homesteading laws that required big farms on small claims all contributed to flying topsoil.
Even now, 70 years later, the damage is not wholly repaired. Bennett's soil conservation program, launched in haste that April afternoon in Washington, D.C., has replanted much of the area with grass and united farmers in a scheme to rotate crops and save soil. It is the only one of Roosevelt's New Deal initiatives that survives today. But ghost towns and occasional dust storms still remind us that we displace nature at our own peril.
Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia. Copyright 2006 BookPage Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2005 November #2
Grim, riveting account by New York Times reporter Egan makes clear that, although hurricanes and floods have grabbed recent headlines, America's worst assault from Mother Nature came in the form of ten long years of drought and dust.The "dust bowl" of the 1930s covered 100 million acres spread over five states: Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska and Colorado. From 1930 to 1935, nearly a million people left their farms, littered with animal corpses and stunted crops. Schools closed. Towns simply disappeared. Thousands died from "dust pneumonia," a new condition born of swallowing and inhaling the swirling topsoil. The author personalizes this tragedy by focusing on a handful of hardy settlers who came to America's heartland with high hopes and boundless energy, then watched with growing despair as the earth turned against them. In truth, the dust bowl was largely a human creation. The great southern plains, once covered with native grasses that fed the buffalo and held the soil in place, were essentially stripped bare in the 1920s by wheat-farmers eager to cash in on cheap land and high grain prices. The newly invented tractor made the job easier, and unusually wet weather in the late '20s made farming on the arid plains seem feasible. But then the Depression hit, wheat prices crashed and once-bountiful farms went fallow, abandoned to the deepening drought and ever-blowing winds that literally sent the soil skyward. In the midst of disaster, Egan finds heroes. Among them is country physician Doc Dawson, who opened a sanitarium for dust pneumonia victims, lost all his money farming and spent his last, penniless years running a soup kitchen.Stark and powerful, a gripping if depressing read and a timely reminder that a Nature abused can exact a terrible retribution. Copyright Kirkus 2005 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Library Journal Reviews 2005 September #2
What happened when dust clouds settled over the Plains during the Depression? A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times revisits the little-told story. An in-house favorite that's attracting huge attention. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2005 November #4
Egan tells an extraordinary tale in this visceral account of how America's great, grassy plains turned to dust, and how the ferocious plains winds stirred up an endless series of "black blizzards" that were like a biblical plague: "Dust clouds boiled up, ten thousand feet or more in the sky, and rolled like moving mountains" in what became known as the Dust Bowl. But the plague was man-made, as Egan shows: the plains weren't suited to farming, and plowing up the grass to plant wheat, along with a confluence of economic disaster--the Depression--and natural disaster--eight years of drought--resulted in an ecological and human catastrophe that Egan details with stunning specificity. He grounds his tale in portraits of the people who settled the plains: hardy Americans and immigrants desperate for a piece of land to call their own and lured by the lies of promoters who said the ground was arable. Egan's interviews with survivors produce tales of courage and suffering: Hazel Lucas, for instance, dared to give birth in the midst of the blight only to see her baby die of "dust pneumonia" when her lungs clogged with the airborne dirt. With characters who seem to have sprung from a novel by Sinclair Lewis or Steinbeck, and Egan's powerful writing, this account will long remain in readers' minds. (Dec. 14)[Page 42]. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.