Swimming with Sharks, and The Worst Hard Time

It’s hard–really, really hard–to put yourself in the perspective of a homesteader in the Texas panhandle when you’re surrounded by views like this.

Swimming with Sharks at Spanish Steps, GuamThere are sharks in that water. Black-tipped reef sharks. And I got pretty close and personal with a few of them this afternoon.

Swimming with sharks is one of those things that divers and snorkelers around here shrug off: “Oh, sharks? Psssh. I punched one in the face last week. No biggie.”

Though I’ve done a pretty good chunk of diving and snorkeling in my two years here, I’d never seen one up close until today. And even though most Guammies don’t think it’s a big deal to see them in the water (and even though I must admit that the sharks I swam with today were pretty small by most standards), I’m unreasonably happy.

Anyway.

Soaking up the tropics–and having cool bragging rights like swimming with baby reef sharks in the wild (cough)–makes it hard to imagine a different time and place where clouds of dust rose more than 20,000 feet into the sky and smothered little homesteads and towns in the Great Plains. But that’s what I’ve been reading about.

The Worst Hard Time tells the story of the American Dust Bowl–a period of intense drought and dust storms that hit a vulnerable area at the very worst time possible.

The Worst Hard Time CoverI think it’s interesting that many Goodreads reviewers make comments like, “I didn’t finish this book. It was too depressing.” Um, the title didn’t tip you off?

You can’t read an honest book about the Great Depression in general, and the dust bowl in particular, and expect it to be anything but depressing. You just can’t.

The Worst Hard Time reminded me of John Hersey’s Hiroshima, though the two are dramatically different. Hiroshima compresses the pain of the most devastating manmade disaster in history into 152 dense pages (pages that, if you’re me, make you want to throw up at times).
The Worst Hard Time also covers a devastating manmade disaster, but in this one, you become far more invested in the lives of the homesteaders and in their dreams for the future, which makes it even harder to watch them struggle.
I can’t help but sympathize with the homesteaders’ plight. But. Their attitudes are overwhelmingly irritating. Why didn’t they just leave? I wish I could ask them if their stubbornness to stay on the land was worth the lives of the children they lost to “dust pneumonia.” All those babies sleeping with wet sheets over their cribs and Vaseline in their nostrils to filter out the dust, only to die slowly because their lungs filled with dirt.
The homesteaders couldn’t afford to leave, but they couldn’t afford to stay, either–not with banks foreclosing on their properties and the ground unwilling to grow even a carrot during the worst of the drought years. Why not go someplace where there may not be jobs, but at least the very air isn’t trying to kill them? Even though I’m baffled by the stubbornness to stay in a place that was killing them, the stories of these sturdy homesteaders did break my heart.
Though I’m miles away from West Texas now, the story of the Dust Bowl hit particularly close to home for me since I grew up near the southern end of the dust bowl at the bottom corner of the Texas panhandle. I saw the desert that was once fertile grassland, and have heard Grandma talk a little about her family who took on the (derogatory) title “Okies” with pride and made a home for themselves.
Much of The Worst Hard Time follows the folks of Dalhart, TX. I’ve been there. Really makes the history come alive when you realize that those little wide-spot-in-the-road towns have such deep (and, in this case, painful) histories.
 Dust-storm-Texas-1935
I love the way Timothy Egan weaves together the story of this time from the lives of people—German, Irish, and other settlers, including the Comanche Indians who called the land home, the old cowboys of the XIT ranch, African Americans who had the misfortune of passing through those racist communities, and those of mixed ancestry who loved the land.
Egan also covers the media’s reports of the phenomenon to the rest of the States and their not-so-sympathetic response to those living in the dust bowl during the Depression. Lots of new perspectives from newspapers, personal diaries, and interviews that we never hear about from the history books.

I kept finding myself putting the book down so I could research. A Google image search yields some mind-boggling photos of dust storms burying homes under layers of silt.

Books like this make me love non-fiction and wish there were more books like this.

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