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Originally published Friday, December 23, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

"Worst Hard Time": Devastating tale of the Dust Bowl

How Americans love to win — or to be more precise, how they hate to fail. Maybe that's why our collective memory of the Dust Bowl, America's...

Seattle Times book editor

"The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl"
by Timothy Egan
Houghton Mifflin, 340 pp., $28

How Americans love to win — or to be more precise, how they hate to fail. Maybe that's why our collective memory of the Dust Bowl, America's worst prolonged environmental disaster, is a dim one, centered on the doubtful face of film star Henry Fonda looking east one last time as his family flees west from Oklahoma in "The Grapes of Wrath."

After reading Timothy Egan's new book, "The Worst Hard Time," one could make a case that the Joads made the best of the situation. "The Worst Hard Time" is about the disaster that befell those who were left behind.

Egan's account of the Dust Bowl era is a final, terrible rebuke to the policies of America's dying days of frontier expansion — when speculators, aided by the government, sold off as farmland grasslands never meant to be turned by the plow. Farmers ripped up the prairie and the wind blew away soil that had built up over millions of years. "God didn't create this land around here to be plowed up," Melt White, who lived through the Dust Bowl as a teenager, tells Egan. "He created it for Indians and buffalo. Folks raped this land. Raped it bad."

History's usual suspects, ignorance and greed, are behind what happened in the 1930s to 100 million acres in Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. The saddest part of the story: Dust Bowl settlers, the proud "yeoman farmers" of American tradition, did it to themselves.

Egan, one of the Northwest's best-known writers, is a Seattle-based national correspondent for The New York Times. His writing in books such as "The Good Rain," though restrained by journalistic objectivity, has always been driven by a passion for the environment.

In "The Worst Hard Time," Egan lets it rip. 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. The story opens with an indelible scene: a woman burning her husband's diary, an excruciating chronicle of those dark days. An astonished neighbor asks why: "The horror, the woman explained, was not worth sharing. She wanted it gone forever."

Early chapters precisely document how the "greatest grassland in the world" was eradicated in an historical blink of an eye.

Before whites poured in, the native grass fed the buffalo, which sustained the Indians. "In the spring, the carpet flowered amid the green, and as wind blew, it looked like music on the ground," Egan writes. Less poetic, but more to the point — the grass and its network of roots held the dirt in place.

Then the U.S. government, which wanted the Indians off the land, promoted the slaughter of the buffalo. It took 10 years to eradicate, by one estimate, 25 million animals.

The Indians, deprived of their main food source, left. In came mammoth cattle ranches, owned by land speculators as far away as London. Then the cattle market tanked, and the speculators started selling off the land to settlers.

The settlers, known as "nesters" or "sodbusters," came late to the Western land grab. They settled on what was left over: land west of the 98th meridian, a north-south line west of which too little rain generally falls to sustain crops.

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Egan tells the stories of several families that moved in during these years. The Osteens, who lived in a dugout and poured boiling water on the walls to kill "fresh hatched bugs." A doctor who ran a sanitarium. A schoolteacher. Melt White's dad, Bam White, a cowboy.

In the early years it rained a lot, and World War I and its aftermath promoted a wheat boom. Towns blossomed on the prairie; farm families bought farm machinery, pianos and singing lessons. More land was plowed up. When wheat prices started falling, nesters ripped up more grass and planted more wheat, just to keep paying the mortgage.

Then the drought began. Ten million plowed acres had turned into 100 million, and as the dry, hot weather lengthened and deepened, nothing would grow. The winds, which had always blown over the tough and rooted grass, picked up the exposed soil and flung it over the region and as far away as New York City. Egan describes one of the first storms, which blew through Amarillo, Texas:

"Nobody knew what to call it, a cloud ten thousand feet high from ground to top.

"It was not a rain cloud. Nor was it a cloud holding ice pellets. It was not a twister. It was thick like coarse animal hair; it was alive. People close to it described a feeling of being in a blizzard — a black blizzard, they called it — with an edge like steel wool."

The sections of "The Worst Hard Time" that follow are almost biblical in their Job-like intensity. People and animals die from dust-related diseases; cattle starve because their stomachs are filled with dirt. Drifts of dust pile so high no one can leave town. Some years not a single green leaf remains on a tree. Cultivating the land is a distant memory.

There are Gothic passages. Riled by rabbits who graze on what grass is left, settlers club them by the thousands. Plagues of spiders and snakes and grasshoppers descend, populations exploding because of abnormally warm temperatures.

As the region's misery deepened, the government moved in, paying farmers to shoot their livestock or move off the land altogether. Some of the New Deal's most famous initiatives began on the Plains. One of the few heroes in "The Worst Hard Time" is Hugh Bennett, a North Carolina soil scientist. Before Bennett became a politician, he thundered: "Of all the countries in the world, we Americans have been the greatest destroyers of land of any race of people barbaric or civilized." Later, he curbed his tongue and persuaded farmers to adopt new tilling and farming practices that would heal the land.

As the dark descends on the lives of Egan's characters, the book acquires an almost dirgelike feel. It comes as a surprise to read, late in the book, that though a quarter-million people fled the larger region, a majority of people in the most "wind-bared and lacerated counties" did not move, or relocated only a few hundred miles away. One is left wanting more information about how they survived, how they endured.

Some answers are supplied in the epilogue. Bennett's prescriptions had some effect on the land, though today most of the former Dust Bowl is occupied by large farms run by agribusinesses. The "nester" is a relic of the past, done in by forces even larger than dust. Mechanized, irrigated farming continues to draw down the Ogallala Aquifer, the enormous underground water source, created when glaciers melted 15,000 years ago. It may run dry within 100 years.

Egan tells the story — readers can draw their own conclusions. Here are mine.

Violating nature's natural patterns turns into a noose made for man. Ask Gulf Coast hurricane victims. Think of polar bears swimming to nowhere and drowning because the Arctic ice sheet is melting. Consider, despite general consensus that it's a fact, that almost nothing has been done to slow down global warming. Then ask yourself the unavoidable question: What will be the next hard time?

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