“The Worst Hard Time” by Timothy Egan

In The Worst Hard Time, author Timothy Egan writes about “the greatest environmental disaster in the history of the United States” (The Guardian). In this book, he gives his audience a first-hand look into what these characters were going through during the Dust Bowl and how they survived. Egan establishes transparency with his readers by including realistic detail of before the storm, during the storm, and after the storm.

One major thing that makes Timothy Egan an incredible author is his ability to gather credible sources. As an author, this forms a strong, trustworthy insight for his readers. For example, as a student learns about the Dust Bowl in primary education, it is understood that this event really occurred in history because one always trusts an educational textbook. Because Timothy Egan’s book is not a textbook, but it discusses a traumatic event in history, he had to add more credibility to his book than a standard textbook, which he did as clearly noted in the index of his book.

Timothy Egan not only included an index in his book (p. 331-340), but he also added a “notes and sources” section (p. 315-327). In the “notes and sources” section, it explains that Egan interviewed his characters in the book by taking trips to the High Plains and then recorded his own interviews with his subjects (p. 315).

A strength of Egan’s was his wide variety of characters he included in this book. While he did include a lot of survivors, he told the specific struggles of each of them. I also like that he included authority such as the United States government, President Roosevelt, and Roosevelt’s administration. I think the use of this many characters made the Dust Bowl more believable and easier to understand because as people, we can see and feel the terror these survivors encountered.

Egan establishes his characters with his readers by giving us a first-hand insight as if we were actually there experiencing what the characters were experiencing. For example, when discussing Hazel Lucas Shaw, Egan adds a lot of description to Hazel’s move to find new land where she could safely breathe. Egan then goes on to explain how Hazel gives birth to a baby girl who dies of dust pneumonia, and Hazel could not understand how this was so because she had moved to the land of Colorado for safe air to start with. Now, this safe space was taking her own daughter’s life. Also, not only did Hazel lose her daughter to dust pneumonia that day, she also lost her grandmother. These grievances establish reality with the readers to show just how dangerous these dust storms were and how characters were losing their valuables, as well as loved ones, to nature.

In chapter six of the book, Egan adds imagery to a scene that makes the readers feel as though they are right there seeing it with their own eyes. Egan uses the example of a mob that took place at a bank. At this time, individuals made deposits at banks that they wanted back. The banks had closed, which is why these mobs broke out. As a reader, you feel as though you are actually at the scene, watching these mobs at a bank try to knock the locked doors down so they can get their money.

The most descriptive scene that stood out to me was the “blackjack” who was decapitated for murdering one of the Herztein boys, but something went wrong. The imagery Egan adds can make a reader visualize what happened to the blackjack’s neck. He explained that the execution went wrong due to some oil that was added to the noose, and the blackjack’s head snapped right off because the noose was too slick to break at the spine, as normal execution procedures called for.

In the article “Worst Hard Time” published in The Guardian, the author agrees with Egan by explaining how it was actually human action that stirred up the Dust Bowl. The author then goes on to question whether or not people will learn from their mistakes, or if they will continue to make them, which will lead to more natural disaster. The author here explains that Egan does not give answers to these haunting questions, but that “he does provide plenty to think about in his passionate but reasoned account of the Dust Bowl Days.” This made me think that Egan could have published this book in hopes that humans would not repeat their past mistakes, just as history lessons teach us. By adding literary elements to this history lesson, people will be more impacted to not repeat their past mistakes, whereas a textbook just seems to simply define that incident in the past.

Egan does blame people for the Dust Bowl, but he writes that the United States government is the factor that started it all. “But he does blame the government outright for setting the Dust Bowl’s stage: clearing the land of bison to make way for cattle, offering incentives that lured settlers to plow, stimulating wartime demands and encouraging unsustainable practices” (The NY Times).

In an interview that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt conducted with Egan, they asked him why he published the book almost seventy years later. His response was “To me, there was an urgency to get this story now because the last of the people who lived through those dark years are in their final days.” Egan explains thoroughly the consequences people deal with when they do not take proper care of their natural habitats, such as land. Egan believes that something like the Dust Bowl can easily happen again. When Egan interviewed some survivors who also fought in World War II, he said (the World War II survivors) “saw the worst kind of carnage that human beings can inflict on each other, and they say the Dust Bowl Was more traumatic.” This book serves as a lesson to warn individuals that how they treat their land can backfire on them one day and be much more traumatic and scarring than any war.

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