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Book Review – The Worst Hard Time

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On Sunday, April 14, 1935, a massive dust storm fell upon a portion of five different states: Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. The greatest and worst dust storm on record, it turned night into day and became known ever after as Black Sunday. During the 1930s these storms had become common throughout the Great Plains and extending all the way into the Canadian prairies.

The First World War had made many farmers wealthy as the price of wheat soared, and as it did so, millions of acres of new sod was broken throughout the Plains. Sod was turned upside down and wheat grew as never before. However, after the war ended, a time of drought hit the Western part of the continent and the soil dried out to become dust. The soil blew upwards and eastwards, forming great clouds that traveled across the continent, sometimes blanketing Chicago, New York and Washington. As the drought continued year-after-year, a large percentage of the population was forced to migrate away from the effected States. What had once been rich farmland was left as little more than desert. Much of it remains that way even today.

Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time, a book that made a brief appearance on the New York Times list of bestsellers and is a National Book Award finalist, is a fascinating little slice of history. It tells the story of a few people in a small portion of a great nation. Focusing on a couple of towns in the midst of the Dust Bowl, it describes first the men and women who headed to the Plains seeking to put down roots, then the brief success they enjoyed, and finally the pain and despair they endured as their land turned to dust. It is, in the words of the Times, a classic disaster tale and one that serves to caution us against trifling with Creation and against taking it for granted. Though sometimes a little bit raw in dealing with the raw realities of life on the wild frontier, it is well-written and deals with an interesting topic. It is a great example of popular history and is well worth the read.

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