When the wind stops blowing across the southern plains, says author Timothy Egan, it’s enough to scare people. They wonder what’s coming next. It’s not a kind land and has been especially harsh to those who mistreat it.
In the 1930s, the Great Plains became known as the Dust Bowl, a time and place where top soil, no longer anchored by prairie grasses, eroded away, leading to one of the greatest ecological disasters in the country's history. Following several years of drought, great waves of dust, sometimes thousands of feet high and miles wind, blew across the plains, suffocating livestock and even people. The dust found its way into houses, barns and people's lungs. It coincided with the Great Depression (1929-1939), the worst economic disaster the nation has known.
What Egan hopes to capture in his book is the first-person voices, those who lived through the happy farming days of the '20s and the hard days of the '30s, before, he tells the reader, “the last witnesses fade away.”
More than simple mortality complicates his task, however. Some people are reluctant to talk about the bad times, almost as if there is shame attached to it. The diary of one man who lived through those times was saved only when neighbors noticed his widow burning it. How could she burn such treasure? The horror was not worth sharing and she wanted it gone forever, she told them.
Egan is able to interview then 86-year-old Isaac Osteen. When he arrived at his home, Osteen, known as Ike, was up a ladder making repairs to his roof.
[His] life spans the flu epidemic of 1918, the worst depression in American history, and a world war that ripped apart the globe. Nothing compares to the black dusters of the 1930s, he says, a time when the simplest thing in life—drawing a breath—was a threat. (p.6)
In addition to the eyewitness accounts and some black and white photos of dust storms and the land, the author provides the reader with a greater context, describing the ecology and settlement policies that helped lure people to the area. He does not preach, but shows how a vicious cycle of drought, debt and pulling up prairie grasses to plant more crops (thus leaving the land vulnerable to top soil erosion) led to greater depredation of the land, greater debt, undervalued crops and no way out for many.
But above all, it is the individual voice that Egan wishes the reader to hear.
This is not a quick, easy or fun read, but it is interesting and insightful. Egan’s prose may get a little colorful at times, and some of the stories he recounts seem to this reviewer to be too good to be literal. Nevertheless, this is a great reminder of a time many would like to forget.
This review first appeared at Epinions written by me. It has been extensively rewritten.