Monday, January 20, 2014

The Worst Hard Time: When you think your life is tough . . . .

I've always had some weird fascination with the Dust Bowl.  When I taught Of Mice and Men, I really wanted my students to get a sense of the desperation of the time and understand further why the situation with George and Lennie was so dire. I showed footage of The Dust Bowl storms with voice overs of actual people who lived through them.  I read passages from Karen Hesse's book Out of the Dust (1998 Newberry Award Winner that is told from the perspective of a young girl named Billie Jo whose family struggles through the terror of the Dust Bowl), and I showed pictures taken of the farms and devastation during the dust storms of the mid 1930's when the land turned against the farmers.

I thought I understood the plight of farmers during the Dust Bowl, but I had no idea until I read The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan (National Book Award Winner 2006).  Chosen as Central Pa's One Book, One Community (each year, a panel of judges chooses a book that they believe if you only read one book this year, this is the one you should read.  For this selection, the judges instead gave the public an opportunity to vote on the selection from a few choices).  Egan's book, in unflinching details, recounts the plight of the farmers brave enough to settle in the area called "No Man's Land" or the Texas panhandle.  The land was unforgiving - high winds, high temperatures in the summer, frigid temperatures in the winter, and covered in prairie grass as far as the horizon until some of the settlers imported wheat seeds that could withstand the elements. Then, the farmers transformed the land from prairie grass and bison country, to wheat fields - millions of acres of wheat on land that didn't seem capable of sustaining that kind of crop.  Heedless of warnings, the farmers continued to bask in the lucrative crop spurred by fast moving tractors, until the wheat prices dropped, and then they farmed more hoping to make up for the lack of money.

The land rebelled.  Drought took hold with temperatures as high as 114 degrees searing the land.  Crops died and the dust scraped the landscape entering homes through any crack or crevice.  The bugs came - grasshoppers, centipedes, black widows. Bunnies threatened what little crops would grow and then the skies turned black and mountainous billowing dust storm clouds rolled over the prairie.  People developed hacking coughs, dust pneumonia, blindness, and always the pervasive dust covered their tables, their floors, their lives.  No amount of sweeping, no amount of wet sheets placed over the windows could keep the dust out.

Egan humanizes the Dust Bowl, by first showing how desperate many of these settlers were in the first place and follows several families closely through their struggles raising crops, families and trying desperately to survive the bleak unforgiving dirt drenched days.  At the same time he shows the human struggle, he also personifies the land, giving it a voice.  The farmers stripped the land; they turned it into something that it was never intended to be, and the land fought back with anger and aggression. Melt White, a farmer who loved the plains as they were before the wheat boon said, "God didn't create this land around here to be plowed up. . . He created it for Indians and buffalo.  Folks raped this land. Raped it bad."

Although a bit dry (not as dry as the land during the mid 1930s) in spots, I thought Egan's extensively researched and heart wrenching study of The Dust Bowl shed light on so many aspects of that period in history that were foreign to me.  I knew the environmental disaster was caused by over farming, but I didn't know the extent of it.  I knew about the dust storms and even watched footage of them, but I didn't know how horrible and how often they afflicted the people of the region.  I had never heard of Black Sunday, but I am not going to forget it. The fact that anyone stayed in that forsaken land shows the desperation of the time.  Where would they go? Many of the immigrants that settled in No Man's Land were unwanted in other parts of the country.  This land held their last fragile hopes of making money and making a life. How would they survive anywhere else? How would they continue to survive where they were? "How to explain a place where black dirt fell from the sky, where children died from playing outdoors, where rabbits were clubbed to death by adrenaline-primed nesters still wearing their Sunday-school clothes, where grasshoppers descended on weakened fields and ate everything but doorknobs?" To the people who stayed, these storms must have seemed like the end of days - a punishment for wheat greed and for the ignorance of tampering with nature.

As I read and shared passages about bunny drives and mass slaughtering of dying livestock (some of the worst parts for me to read) with my husband, he continually asked, "so, how did it all end?" That was another surprising part for me.  The solutions for The Dust Bowl catastrophe shocked me.  People really believed that if you shot dynamite into clouds, it would rain.  FDR offered hope and help, but still regions affected by the Dust Bowl are uninhabitable and un-farmable. Egan leans heavy on the conservationist and environmentalist stance of when humans try to wield the powers of nature, nature wins, but he does it with sensitivity to the people who tried unsuccessfully to beat the wrath of nature and those who still love No Man's land despite nature's wrath.

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