I've been a fan of NYT superstar Timothy Egan for quite awhile now. Long before his recent rise to Frank Rich- style weekend opinion columns, Egan was the Times' man in the Pacific Northwest.
I first discovered Egan after picking up his book The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest on the recommendation of a staffer at Powell's bookshop in Portland. If you're at all curious about the history, geography, and politics of that area of the country, I can't praise The Good Rain's merits highly enough.
Being a longtime fan of Egan's I'd somehow missed the publication of The Worst Hard Time until just last month. What a pleasure to breeze through this piece of vintage Egan during these highly subject-appropriate times. Egan follows half a dozen or so families in the high plains (think the section of the Oklahoma panhandle known as 'No Man's Land') as the 1930s proceed from uncertain, to bad, to worse, to wretched, to unbearable, to the book of Job, to Dr. Evil's slow motion execution of 'Mustafa' in the first Austin Powers…
Egan brings to life dust clouds that put the special effects in 'Twister' to shame. He recounts dust storms generated in Kansas that dumped dirt all over the Whitehouse. He describes babies dying from "dust poisoning." Entire cities vanishing under economic collapse.
Most poignantly of all, he describes the massive environmental misjudgement that caused the dust bowl: namely the plowing and cultivation of arid grasslands never meant to support agriculture as we know it. In aggregate, the people of the high plains reaped what they sowed — to disastrous effect. By the prime of the dust bowl, the high plains had become a humanitarian disaster — almost entirely dependent upon the national government for subsistence and a way forward. Much of the land and many of the towns and cities have not recovered to this day.
I chose to read this book as a metaphor for the global warming debate, but it works as straight-and-compelling history as too.