The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

February 7, 2012

Summary (from the publisher): The dust storms that terrorized the High Plains in the darkest years of the Depression were like nothing ever seen before or since.
Timothy Egan’s critically acclaimed account rescues this iconic chapter of American history from the shadows in a tour de force of historical reportage. Following a dozen families and their communities through the rise and fall of the region, Egan tells of their desperate attempts to carry on through blinding black dust blizzards, crop failure, and the death of loved ones. Brilliantly capturing the terrifying drama of catastrophe, Egan does equal justice to the human characters who become his heroes, “the stoic, long-suffering men and women whose lives he opens up with urgency and respect” (New York Times).

In an era that promises ever-greater natural disasters, The Worst Hard Time is “arguably the best nonfiction book yet” (Austin Statesman Journal) on the greatest environmental disaster ever to be visited upon our land and a powerful cautionary tale about the dangers of trifling with nature.


  • This book is full of interesting tidbits about the dust storms that ravaged the Great Plains. My knowledge of the Dust Bowl is limited to whatever Steinbeck said about it in Grapes of Wrath, so most of this was new to me. For example, I had no idea that there was just so DAMN MUCH of the stuff blowing around that people and animals ingested it and died because dirt and silica clogged up their lungs. Wow.
  • Speaking of silica, I didn’t know that was one of the main components of Great Plains dirt. Can you imagine having that stuff cutting into your skin all the time? Egan did a nice job with the descriptions of what the dirt did not only to houses and farm equipment, but also to people, clothing, and food.
  • I liked the parts where Egan talked about the wider ramifications of the dust storms, such as how the worst ones reached all the way to New York or whatever. Again, I simply didn’t know that anything like that happened, so this account was enlightening in many respects.
  • Another thing that I’d never heard mentioned before was the fact that the dust storms also created a lot of static electricity. It was fascinating to read how people couldn’t shake hands for fear of electrocuting each other and how they had to trail chains off the backs of their cars to ground them.


  • The story was told from too many different perspectives. I understand and appreciate why Egan would want to use so many different diaries and interviews from people who lived through that period, but the names were impossible for me to keep straight and I didn’t feel a personal connection to ANY of the individuals or families portrayed in the book. As a result, I think it would have been better to pare things down and stick to just a few firsthand sources instead of cramming everything in there.
  • I did not need to read such gory details about the rabbit slaughters. Seriously, a brief mention would have been fine, but for Egan to go on and on about how thousands of rabbits were herded into a pen and then clubbed to death with baseball bats and axe handles was just nasty. I understand that those folks considered rabbits a pest, but still… my god.
  • The information got to be extremely repetitive after a while. One dust storm wasn’t all that different from the others, so it became tiresome getting the details about so many of them. They all caused huge amounts to topsoil to be blown away; created massive dunes in some places; reduced visibility to zero; caused people to stay in their homes; made farming impossible; caused numerous deaths; and created general mayhem. Again, a few descriptions of a few storms would have been sufficient.
  • I would have liked to have read more about the recovery process. I know this book was focused on the “hard times,” but after so many depressing tales, I wanted a bit more of an uplifting ending instead of the meager paragraphs about how much of the area is now protected grassland. Maybe I’ve just been over-conditioned by Hollywood to expect the best!


I was looking forward to The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan because the book covered a topic I knew little about and because it was the 2006 National Book Award winner for nonfiction. While there were some good things about the book, I found it to be more tiresome and repetitive than not, which seriously detracted from my enjoyment of it. Overall I give this work 3 stars out of 5.

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