The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl

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9781400132201: The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
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The dust storms that terrorized America's High Plains in the darkest years of the Depression were like nothing ever seen before or since, and the stories of the people that held on have never been fully told. Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times journalist and author Timothy Egan follows a half-dozen families and their communities through the rise and fall of the region, going from sod huts to new framed houses to huddling in basements with the windows sealed by damp sheets in a futile effort to keep the dust out. He follows their desperate attempts to carry on through blinding black blizzards, crop failure, and the death of loved ones. Drawing on the voices of those who stayed and survived-those who, now in their eighties and nineties, will soon carry their memories to the grave-Egan tells a story of endurance and heroism against the backdrop of the Great Depression.

Egan captures the very voice of the time-its grit, pathos, and abiding heroism-as only great history can. Combining the human drama of Isaac's Storm with the sweep of The American People in the Great Depression, The Worst Hard Time is a lasting and important work of American history.

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About the Author:

Timothy Egan is a national enterprise reporter for the New York Times. He is the author of four books and the recipient of several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Seattle.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1 The Wanderer They had been on the road for six days, a clan of five bouncing along in a tired wagon, when Bam White woke to some bad news. One of his horses was dead. It was the nineteenth-century equivalent of a flat tire, except this was the winter of 1926. The Whites had no money. They were moving from the high desert chill of Las Animas, Colorado, to Littlefield, Texas, south of Amarillo, to start anew. Bam White was a ranch hand, a lover of horses and empty skies, at a time when the cowboy was becoming a museum piece in Texas and an icon in Hollywood. Within a year, Charles Lindbergh would cross the ocean in his monoplane, and a white man in blackface would speak from the screen of a motion picture show. The great ranches had been fenced, platted, subdivided, upturned, and were going out to city builders, oil drillers, and sodbusters. The least-populated part of Texas was open for business and riding high in the Roaring Twenties. Overnight, new towns were rising, bustling with banks, opera houses, electric streetlights, and restaurants serving seafood sent by train from Galveston.With his handlebar mustache, bowlegs, and raisin-skinned face, Bam White was a man high- centered in the wrong century. The plan was to get to Littlefield, where the winters were not as bad as Colorado, and see if one of the new fancy- pantsers might need a ranch hand with a quick mind. Word was, a family could always pick cotton as well. Now they were stuck in No Man's Land, a long strip of geographic afterthought in the far western end of the Oklahoma Panhandle, just a sneeze from Texas. After sunrise, Bam White had a talk with his remaining horses. He checked their hooves, which were worn and uneven, and looked into their eyes, trying to find a measure of his animals. They felt bony to the touch, emaciated by the march south and dwindling rations of feed. The family was not yet halfway into their exodus. Ahead were 209 miles of road over the high, dry roof of Texas, across the Canadian river, bypassing dozens of budding Panhandle hamlets: Wildorado, Lazbuddie, Flagg, Earth, Circle, Muleshoe, Progress, Circle Back. If you all can give me another two or three days, White told his horses, we'll rest you good. Get me to Amarillo, at least. Bam's wife, Lizzie, hated the feel of No Man's Land. The chill, hurried along by the wind, made it impossible to stay warm. The land was so threadbare. It was here that the Great Plains tilted, barely susceptible to most eyes, rising to nearly a mile above sea level at the western edge. The family considered dumping the organ, their prized possession. They could sell it in Boise City and make just enough to pick up another horse. They asked around: ten dollars was the going rate for an heirloom organ not enough to buy a horse. Anyway, Bam White could not bring himself to give it up. Some of the best memories, through the hardest of years, came with music pumped from that box. They would push on to Texas, twenty miles away, moving a lot slower. After burying their dead horse, they headed south. Through No Man's Land, the family wheeled past fields that had just been turned, the grass upside down. People in sputtering cars roared by, honking, hooting at the cowboy family in the horse-drawn wagon, churning up dust in their faces. The children kept asking if they were getting any closer to Texas and if it would look different from this long strip of Oklahoma. They seldom saw a tree in Cimarron County. There wasn't even grass for the horse team; the sod that hadn't been turned was frozen and brown. Windmills broke the plain, next to dugouts and sod houses and still-forming villages. Resting for a long spell at midday, the children played around a buffalo wallow, the ground mashed. Cimarron is a Mexican hybrid word, descended from the Apache who spent many nights in these same buffalo wallows. It means "wanderer." A few miles to the southeast, archaeologists were just starting to sort through a lost village, a place where natives, seven hundred years earlier, built a small urban complex near the Canadian River, the only reliable running water in the region. People had lived there for nearly two centuries and left only a few cryptic clues as to how they survived. When Francisco Vsquez de Coronado marched through the High Plains in 1541, trailing cattle, soldiers, and priests in pursuit of precious metals, he found only a handful of villages along the Arkansas River, the homes made of intertwined grass, and certainly no cities of gold as he was expecting. His entrada was a bust. Indians on foot passed through, following bison. Some of Bam White's distant forefathers the Querechos, ancestors of the Apache may have been among them. The Spanish brought horses, which had the same effect on the Plains Indian economy as railroads did on Anglo villages in the Midwest. The tribes grew bigger and more powerful, and were able to travel vast distances to hunt and trade. For most of the 1700s, the Apache dominated the Panhandle. Then came the Comanche, the Lords of the Plains. They migrated out of eastern Wyoming, Shoshone people who had lived in the upper Platte River drainage. With horses, the Comanche moved south, hunting and raiding over a huge swath of the southern plains, parts of present-day Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. At their peak in the mid-1700s, they numbered about twenty thousand. To the few whites who saw them in the days before homesteading, the Comanche looked like they sprang fully formed from the prairie grass. "They are the most extraordinary horsemen that I have seen yet in all my travels," said the artist George Catlin, who accompanied the cavalry on a reconnaissance mission to the southern plains in 1834. The Comanche were polygamous, which pleased many a fur trader adopted into the tribe. Naked, a Comanche woman was a mural unto herself, with a range of narrative tattoos all over her body. From afar, the Indians communicated with hand signals, part of a sign language developed to get around the wind's theft of their shouts. The Comanche bred horses and mules the most reliable currency of the 1800s and traded them with California-bound gold-seekers and Santa Febound merchants. In between, they fought Texans. The Comanche hated Texans more than any other group of people. Starting around 1840, the Texas Rangers were organized by the Republic of Texas to go after the Indians. A mounted Comanche was the most effective warrior of the plains. The Comanche were difficult targets but even better on offense. Years of hunting bison from horses at full speed gave them skills that made for an initial advantage over the Rangers. Once engaged in battle, they charged with a great, rhythmic whoop like a football cheer. After a raid and some rest, they would charge again, this time wearing their stolen booty, even women's dresses and bonnets. They were proud after killing Texans. "They made sorrow come into our camps, and we went out like buffalo bulls when the cows are attacked," said Comanche leader Ten Bears in 1867. "When we found them we killed them, and their scalps hang in our lodges. The white women cried, and our women laughed. The Comanches are not weak and blind like the pups of a dog when seven sleeps old." The Comanche buried their dead soldiers on a hill, if they could find one, and then killed the warriors" horses as well. Bison gave them just about everything they needed: clothes, shelter, tools, and of course a protein source that could be dried, smoked, and stewed. Some tepees required twenty bison skins, stretched and stitched together, and weighed 250 pounds, which was light enough to be portable. The animal stomachs were dried and used as food containers or water holders. Even tendons were put to good use, as bowstrings. To supplement the diet, there were wild plums, grapes, and currants growing in spring-fed creases of the .atland, and antelope, sage grouse, wild turkeys, and prairie chickens, though many Comanche thought it was unclean to eat a bird. The tribe had an agreement signed by the president of the United States and ratified by Congress, the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867, which promised the Comanche, Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, and other tribes hunting rights to much of the Great American Desert, the area south of the Arkansas River. At the time, there was no more disparaged piece of ground in the coast- to-coast vision of manifest destiny. The nesters and sodbusters pouring into the postCivil War West could have the wetter parts of the plains, east of the one-hundredth meridian and beyond the Texas Caprock Escarpment. To the Indians would go the land that nobody wanted: the arid grasslands in the west. Early on, Comanchero traders called the heart of this area "el Llano Estacado" the Staked Plains. It got its name because it was so flat and featureless that people drove stakes into the ground to provide guidance; otherwise, a person could get lost in the eternity of flat. The Staked Plains were reserved for the natives who hunted bison. At the treaty signing,Ten Bears tried to explain why Indians could love the High Plains. "I was born upon the prairie where the wind blew free, and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures, and where everything drew free breath. I want to die there, and not within walls . . . The white man has taken the country we loved and we only wish to wander on the prairie until we die." Within a few years of the signing, Anglo hunters invaded the treaty land. They killed bison by the millions, stockpiling hides and horns for a lucrative trade back east. Seven million pounds of bison tongues were shipped out of Dodge City, Kansas, in a single two-year period, 18721873, a time when one government agent estimated the killing at twenty-five million. Bones, bleaching in the sun in great piles at railroad terminals, were used for fertilizer, selling for up to ten dollars a ton. Among the gluttons for killing was a professional buffalo hunter named Tom Nixon, who said he had once killed 120 animals in forty minutes. Texans ignored the Medi...

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