I found The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (2006) by Timothy Egan while I was wandering around the "award winners" display table in a book store a while ago. The Worst Hard Time had won the National Book Award and looked like a pretty interesting piece of history, so I put it on my to-read list.
I have, of course, heard and read about the Dust Bowl and the "Okies," and I've seen some pictures and read The Grapes of Wrath, but I don't think I ever understood how bad the reality of living in the midst of it really was until I read this book. Egan jumps between the personal stories of a number of individuals and families as their lives trickle down into need and then despair as the land around them turns into desert. Egan also looks at the bigger picture: the government policies that first killed the buffalo, pushed out the Indians, and then encouraged farming on land that could not sustain it; the millions and millions of acres of grassland that were overturned in the wheat boom in the twenties; and the millions of tons of topsoil that were blown away and lost. On the whole, I found this book fascinating and easy to read. It immediately captured my attention, and although In the Heart of the Sea is still probably my favorite non-fiction book, I never felt like I was slogging through dense, boring history.
Now that we are enduring an "economic downturn--as bad as we've seen since the Great Depression", this book certainly helped me to put things in perspective. The unusually wet years of the late 1920's along with the booming price of wheat due to the war brought about the quick settlement of parts of Southeast Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas that would not have happened otherwise. Families plowed up the land, planted their wheat and made some money; so then they bought tractors in order to plow up more land. When the wheat prices started falling, the farmers compensated by plowing up even more grass and planting even more wheat. When the wheat prices really fell to nothing and the drought came and dried everything up, it left people with nothing but debt.
What I never understood, though, is that not only were the people poor, but they were literally living in hell. The unanchored land blew into the air. Many days of every year there were horrible dust storms that whipped paint off houses, killed farm animals, smothered crops, and sucked the life out of everything. The dust would not stay out of houses or out of lungs. People wore masks and hung wet sheets over their doors and windows and were still dying left and right of "dust pneumonia." Livestock were found with insides so full of dust that the little food available could not be digested. The temperatures in the summer were often well over one hundred and the dust created so much static electricity that you couldn't touch anything, it could short out cars, and it would kill entire gardens. People lived on pickled tumbleweeds and rabbits--that somehow seemed to thrive. Everything was dead. There was no color and no beauty anywhere, only a harsh struggle for survival.
Intertwined with these harsh realities are the personal stories of a number of interesting personalities. It was the personal stories through the years that really grounded this book and made it more relatable. And although the book focused on the white, American farmers, Egan does discuss how the land was used and farmed by Native Americans successfully for centuries before us greedy, manifest destiny-loving Americans came and raped the land. It's rather ironic that one of the plans for the land after it became a wasteland was to give it back to the Indians. I found another anecdote completely shocking--even for the 1930's. Dalhart, Texas had a sign saying something to the effect of Blacks shouldn't let the sun go down on them in Dalhart. When two black men who were freezing and hungry got off the train in Dalhart, they were arrested and jailed for months. They went before the judge twice in this period and each time he made them dance for him--in the courthouse. I guess it's not that I'm surprised that there was racism in the 1930's in Texas, but that it would be so blatant and ugly in a court of law just blows my mind. I guess I just can't let go of my idealism.
Anyway, I'd recommend this one if you have any interest in America's past. It's well written, with an award to prove it, and full of details of lives I would never have imagined.