Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Down The Tracks, Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time

"Dodge City went black. The front edge of the duster looked two thousand feet high. Winds clocked in at sixty miles an hour. A few minutes earlier there had been bright sunlight and a temperature of 81 degrees, without a wisp of wind. Drivers turned on their headlights but could not see ahead of them, or even see the person sitting next to them. It was like three midnights in a jug, one old nester said. Cars died, their system shorted out by the static...A woman in Kansas later said she thought of killing her child to spare the baby the cruelty of Armageddon". Black Sunday, April 14th, 1935, the biggest duster yet wreaked havoc on America, carrying the dirt from the mid lands as far as New York City. Much has been written on the Dust Bowl, but most books focussed on the exodus that the dust bowls caused. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl is one of the few books out there that chronicles the experiences of those who decided to stay. In this absolute can't put down book, Timothy Egan breathes life into people who history forgot, majestically capturing the horror of the Dust Bowl and the reliances of those who decided to stay and face them.

The Dust Bowl was caused by a series of complex factors. To gain some understanding Egan takes us back to the final frontier, how the midlands were won. In extremely vivid story telling Egan relates how the Indians were chased from their lands in the era of home steading. He illustrates how the Texan cowboys chased the bison from the plains, how the farmers after that cultivated them, replacing the prairie grass for wheat. In a matter of decades, first encouraged by the high wheat prices during World War I, then by the dropping prices during the depression, every strand of prairie grass was destroyed. When the farmers decided to abandon their lands or stopped cultivating them, the top soil lay loose, easily picked up by the winds. Ultimately this caused one of the first man made ecological catastrophes that hasn't seen its equal since on American soil.

The scenes Egan sets in his book seems miles away from Springsteen's rendition of "My Oklahoma Home", a popular folk song from that era. The wry and ironic lines and the upbeat music cloud the tragedy of the Dust Bowl. Yet it lies waiting there for us to uncover. After finishing this book, not one line in "My Oklahoma Home" seems an exaggeration. The dusters and depression indeed took every little last bit from the people but their mortgage. After reading this book you can't help but admire the spirit of whoever wrote the original. To look that mean black duster in the eye, letting it fill up your lungs, take away your house and reasons for living and laugh in its face is inspiring indeed.

The main strength of Egan's book is how he traces a few select families from Dalhart and Boise City, located right in the heart of the Dust Bowl, a region aptly called No-Man's Land. Through these personal histories, Egan makes that complex interplay of what caused the duster come to life. Through Egan we not only get to know the people, the dreams they had when they settled and the terror they felt under the dusters and the depression, we also get to know the land, why it responded like it did. As this book illustrates, it doesn't hurt to reflect on those times every once in a while, be it trough song or reading. The Dust Bowl holds many lessons our collective memory would rather forget. But in an age of global warming, facing our past couldn't hurt.

Read more on the Dust Bowl and see interviews with survivors here

No comments: