2006 National Book Award Winner, Nonfiction

Timothy Egan

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

Houghton Mifflin

Timothy Egan, Photo Credit: Lorenzo Ciniglio

About the Book

Told through the eyes of those who survived it, this is the untold story of the Dust Bowl, the decade of brutally punishing dust storms that ravaged the American High Plains during the Depression.

About the Author

Timothy Egan is a national enterprise reporter for The New York Times. In 2001, he was part of a team of reporters awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the paper’s series exploring racial experiences and attitudes across contemporary America. He is the author of four books, including The Good Rain and Lasso the Wind. He lives in Seattle.

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Listen to Egan reading an excerpt from The Worst Hard Time on NPR:



from THE WORST HARD TIME, by Timothy Egan

Copyright © 2006 by Timothy Egan.
Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

A Sunday in mid-April 1935 dawned quiet, windless, and bright. In the afternoon, the sky went purple — as if it were sick — and the temperature plunged. People looked northwest and saw a ragged-topped formation on the move, covering the horizon. The air crackled with electricity. Snap. Snap. Snap. Birds screeched and dashed for cover. As the black wall approached, car radios clicked off, overwhelmed by the static. Ignitions shorted out. Waves of sand, like ocean water rising over a ship’s prow, swept over roads. Cars went into ditches. A train derailed.

Jeanne Clark had been outside playing when her mother called to her, panic in her voice.

“It was like I was caught in a whirlpool,” she says. “All of a sudden it got completely dark. I couldn’t see a thing.”

That was Black Sunday, April 14, 1935, day of the worst duster of them all. The storm carried twice as much dirt as was dug out of the earth to create the Panama Canal. The canal took seven years to dig; the storm lasted a single afternoon. More than 300,000 tons of Great Plains topsoil was airborne that day. For weeks afterward, eight-year-old Jeanne Clark could not stop coughing. She was taken to the hospital, where dozens of other children, as well as many elderly patients, were spitting up fine particles. The doctor diagnosed Jeanne with dust pneumonia, the brown plague, and said she might not live for long. Jeanne’s mother had trouble believing the doctor’s words. She had come here for the air, and now her little girl was dying of it.

The narrative of those times is not just buried among fence posts and mummified homesteads. People who lived through the whole thing — the great town-building, farm-fattening, family establishing prosperity of the 1920s, followed by the back hand of nature in the next decade, when all of life played out as if filmed grainy black-and-white — are with us still, shelters of living memory. But before the last witnesses fade away, they have a story to tell.

Copyright © 2006 by Timothy Egan.
Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.