four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
21-Mar-Apr-2006
By: 
Timothy Egan
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The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl

A-TheWorstHardTimeIn the late 19th century settlers arrived on the Great Plains and in industrious American fashion, cleared the native grassland to plant wheat crops. For a time, all was well. Then came the Great Depression and with it, dust of biblical proportion which killed with the efficiency of a well-aimed shard of glass. Some settlers moved out of the Dust Bowl region, an exodus famously chronicled in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), but many remained to hold onto their land. Timothy Egan has tracked down these hardy (or foolhardy) stalwarts to deliver a firsthand account of their struggles with the land.
Houghton Mifflin. 340 pages. $28. ISBN: 061834697X

Oregonian 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Egan’s heart clearly lies with the men and women who called, and continue to call, the land their home. He tells their story in a way that not only makes history come alive, but reminds every reader of the power of the human spirit." Tom Hallman Jr.

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Readers willing to cross paths with the depths of human misery will also be rewarded with a deeper understanding of the capacity to survive—the ability to muster up courage, strength, and even optimism with which to bring new life into a world which seems unrelentingly dark." Stacy A Teicher

Detroit Free Press 4 of 5 Stars
"Timothy Egan has written memorably about how our impossible dreams collide with the extreme landscapes of the American West. He is on firm ground with this fierce, humane account of the nearly decade-long calamity of the Dust Bowl." David Laskin

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Egan’s point is fundamental. Weather (like much of life) has cyclical patterns, sometimes kind, sometimes vicious. If we ignore these fluctuations when we harness the land by laying out farms or constructing levees, nature will strike back." Elizabeth Corcoran

Seattle Post-Intelligencer 4 of 5 Stars
"Here is an epic, yet grim saga of human folly and heroism, environmental madness and disaster, related with riveting prose, telling incidents, resplendent empathy." John Marshall

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"This is a sad and angry book, written with vivid description and a propulsive prose all the more remarkable for the fact that most of the people who lived through this story are no longer alive to tell the tale." Mary Ann Gwinn

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Egan trips himself up with redundant outrage and with iterations of superlatives. … The author takes far too many stabs at explaining why anyone opted to stay in the Dust Bowl, instead of following the Joads, and he slips from inventive, wonder-filled descriptions of the landscape to pure bluster and cowboy talk." Elizabeth Royte

Critical Summary

A national correspondent on environmental issues for the New York Times, Timothy Egan describes a central plain that is as distinct and varied as the Rocky Mountains that buttress it to the west. "Linguistic flourishes" (San Francisco Chronicle) and an "authoritative voice" (Portland Oregonian), supported by Egan’s Pulitzer Prize–winning reportorial skills, make The Worst Hard Time an essential testament-cum-elegy to the price of human progress and the indomitable will of the American spirit. Reviewers are loath to throw around "masterpiece" lightly, but Egan’s book gets a couple of nods; the uniformity of the praise seems to affirm his heady accomplishment.