Why don't people leave hopeless situations? Timothy Egan's breathless history of Dust Bowl "last chancers" appears, providentially, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a disaster that had many asking why some people seemed glued to their doomed city. The Worst Hard Time provides a two-sided coin of an answer. First, those who stayed owned nothing besides the useless land. And second, many were psychologically unable to face the evidence of failure that leaving would force on them.
Egan, a New York Times reporter, paints a detailed portrait of the terrifying blankness of the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles, the place where most of his settler characters tried to put down roots while ripping up the sod. To the government, the prairie where bison thrived looked like a wasteland. So they lured as many settlers as possible with free land giveaways, asking only that the "nesters" improve their property with buildings and crops. The homestead policies coincided, tragically, with a few years of unusually wet weather, starting a stampede of speculators looking to make a killing in the wheat market. When the drought came in the '30s, there was no grass left to hold down the land.
Although the story can be repetitive on the surface—no rain, failed crops, dust pneumonia, "black blizzards," mix and match at will—several compelling figures anchor Egan's readable tale. Hazel Lucas' struggle to start a family in the most inhospitable land in America lends personal poignancy to the statistics about humans and animals breathing, eating, and coughing up dust. Elsewhere, Bam White, a onetime cowboy who became the face of sodbusting irresponsibility when he appeared in the documentary The Plow That Broke The Plains, pays for his role with the lost respect of his fellow Texans.
The Worst Hard Time is a reminder that the disasters of our age, while awesome in scale, still have competition from the breathtaking destruction in our past. And its focus on the people who stuck it out, either through tenacity or grim resignation, illuminates those in our own time who cling to their patches of earth, in spite of the wind or water trying to sweep them away.