The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan

The title of this book caught my attention. In wondering what could have been the worst of all the hard times people have suffered, the Depression years in the U.S. were the last thing on my mind. My parents were children of the Depression, and they always talked about it in the “in my day we walked ten miles to school barefoot in the snow” sort of way, which made me write off a lot of it as hyperbole.

This book shocked me. I’d read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in high school, but it had never occurred to me to wonder about the people who didn’t leave the Dust Bowl. Egan makes the book come alive by anchoring it with the stories of a handful of people, from the boom years through the years when it all turned to dust.

It’s a distressing story on many levels. Last week I mentioned the hucksters who drew homesteaders to the plains with false promises. There were also aggressive Government programs and incentives to settle more people in what had been previously designated the Great American Desert, fueled by “scientific” formulas for “dry farming” that swore prairie could be turned into productive farmland.

Another factor was unchecked capitalism: an international syndicate had been formed to set up the huge XIT cattle ranch and, when returns were not what the investors wanted, they started selling off the land, aggressively marketing it as farmland. Knowing what we know now about ecological systems, I found it physically painful to read about the grasslands that had evolved over thousands of years being recklessly torn up to plant wheat, wheat that later moldered in huge piles next to full silos because the bottom had dropped out of the wheat market.

When David Simon spoke last week at Loyola College on the future of American cities, he was pessimistic. He said that the core issue was that there was a whole group of people whom our post-industrial society had no need for—now that the factories were closed—and was therefore willing to write off. The same could be said of the sodbusters of the 30’s. Their land destroyed, their cows and horses choked to death by dust, their equipment repossessed by the bank, they struggled to survive on yucca roots and tumbleweed.

The difference was the response of the Government. Franklin Roosevelt emerges as a hero of this story, alongside the people who fought so hard to stay alive. His acceptance of the emerging ideas of conservation and ecology, his willingness to invest in efforts to reverse the damage, and his commitment to helping people survive made him an icon to his suffering citizens and a model for us.

The people weren’t just waiting for handouts; they pulled together, worked hard, helped each other out. Their story is as inspiring as the stories of polar expeditions such as Scott’s and Shackleton’s, but equally as distressing: great feats of endurance and courage that should never have been necessary if the people had not been led (or misled) into such peril. And the Dust Bowl was perilous: suffering drought, bankruptcy, duststorms and plagues of grasshoppers, the sodbusters surely earned the title of this book. But hard work and cooperation can only get you so far. Sometimes you need the safety net. Pure capitalism destroys societies; it needs social controls to keep it in balance.

One thought on “The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan

  1. […] written about this book before. Rereading it nine years later for my book club, I was struck by the same things I mentioned then: […]

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