Between the Lines Book Club: The Worst Hard Time

between the lines book club logoThis is our last week with The Grapes of Wrath.  If you are in the Sacramento area, join us at Arden Dimick Library, 891 Watt Avenue, Sacramento, CA, on September 28, 2014 at 2PM for our in-person meeting.  Meanwhile. share your comments below!

Today’s post doubles as a book review.  The Grapes of Wrath tells a fascinating, harrowing, fictionalized story of those who left the Dust Bowl to come to California.  If you are interested in the history of The Great Depression, than I highly recommend Tim Egan’s nonfiction book about those who did not leave the Dust Bowl:  The Worst Hard Time.

cover of The Worst Hard Time


This book is powerful, informative, and memorable.  It will be a long time before I forget how to keep centipedes from invading a dugout home (iron the walls when your wallpaper starts squirming, or douse the walls with boiling water).  This books vividly demonstrates why the Joads are so determined to leave their home and why so many other people were determined to stay.

dust storm hits town

This book contains many helpful tips in addition to the importance of ironing your walls at regular intervals.  To avoid dust pneumonia, keep your windows covered at all times with dampened curtains (a horrifying number of people dies of dust pneumonia, curtains or no curtains).  You can eat tumbleweeds but they aren’t very good – try soaking them or pickling them.  Be friendly with your neighbors – when the bank seizes everything you own, they’ll buy your things at auction and give them back to you.  More importantly, the book points out the human causes of the Dust Bowl, and points to practices today that do further damage to the ravaged plains.

The plains were plowed under by homesteaders throughout the 1920s.  Turns out that sod, that part of the land where grass roots make a mat under the dirt, is essential to keeping the dirt on the ground.  In the 1930’s the dust storms began and by 1935 and estimated 250,000 people had left, having lost their homes.

The worst storm, on Black Sunday, occurred on April 14, 1935.  More than 300,000 tons of topsoil were blown away in one day – twice as much dirt as was dug up to make the Panama Canal.  Egan writes in a matter that is personal (he takes care to include people we come to know and care about) and visceral, as in this passage:

 “Every spike of barbed-wire fence was glowing with electricity, channeling the energy of the storm. Ike and his friends were a few yards out when the dirt got them. It came quicker than most dusters and as deceptive because no wind was ahead of it. Not a sound, not a breeze, and then it was on top of them. They were slammed to the ground and engulfed by a wall, straight up and down, the dust abrasive and strong, boiling up, twisting.”

dust storm aftermath

The Worst Hard Time has the excitement of a Hollywood disaster movie and the intense relatability that comes from the author focusing on the lives of specific people.  It has a story to tell that is both relevant to our past and to our future, as we look at the environmental impact of our activities.  If you enjoyed The Grapes of Wrath, (if enjoyed is the right word for such a moving book) the you will enjoy The Worst Hard Time.

“Nobody knew what to call it, a cloud ten thousand feet high from ground to top.

“It was not a rain cloud. Nor was it a cloud holding ice pellets. It was not a twister. It was thick like coarse animal hair; it was alive. People close to it described a feeling of being in a blizzard — a black blizzard, they called it — with an edge like steel wool.”

– From The Worst Hard Time

man walking through dust