Thursday, April 26, 2007

Book Review: The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan

One of my new favorite movies has to be The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, starring Tommy Lee Jones. The story revolves largely around a young Border Patrol officer who committed a terrible crime. While his crime is appalling, the bulk of the film traces his punishment--part human inflicted and part seemingly inflicted by nature itself. The story of this officer is one of karma . . . with teeth. By the end of the movie, the viewer wonders whether the officer's sins are worth the repeated punishments: the beatings, the snakebite, the grueling journey, and the corpse companion.

Timothy Egan's book, The Worst Hard Time, reflected a similar theme, this time rooted in history. Set in the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma Panhandle, Baca County Colorado, and parts of Kansas and Nebraska, Egan traces the broad history of the Dust Bowl from cause to windy conclusion. Just like a viewer watching Three Burials, the reader becomes very well aware of the farmers' fault in contributing to the Dust Bowl but later concludes that no one deserves the hell that followed.

Hubris. It's a word that appears frequently in Egan's work--probably because it's the perfect choice to explain the growth of that part of the country. The entire region was founded on hubris. The grasslands had been home to millions of very well-adapted plains buffalo who fed on equally well-adapted grass in a region of high wind and low rain. In an effort to settle the central portions of the US, railroad marketing programs and US government incentives led farmers into this arid region with promises of limitless fertile croplands. An area that had been home to the Native Americans became the home of cowboys until the farmers appeared and plowed millions of acres.

At this point, the history began to remind me of Collapse by Jared Diamond. Diamond studied societies defined by their hubris (or at least ignorance) in good times, hubris which became their downfall in times of environmental or economic change. The good times were really good on the plains. World War I left grain prices soaring, and the early part of the 20th century saw unusually high amounts of rain. Towns exploded, and banks responded with risky lending practices, allowing farmers to acquire new cars, homes, and farm equipment--which created more plowed land. That part of the world was built in a guarantee of continued good conditions, environmentally and financially, and, when the world began to change, it all came crashing down. With the grass gone and crop prices plummeting, that world of hubris vanished in a massive cloud of dust. The plains had a collapse rivaling any detailed in Diamond's book, leaving the population propped up, and barely, on pure grit and government subsidy.

Egan paints the story of the impending struggle clearly and beautifully. His language carries the feel of an old time Panhandle slang, and he leaves the reader almost tasting dirt in her teeth at times (then again, this reader grew up in the Panhandle and is very familiar with that particular flavor of dirt). While the farmer obviously carries the blame for plowing up land fit only for grass, Egan makes it clear that the punishment for that sin outweighed any normal sense of justice. Egan quotes a diary entry from the time: "Those who coined the phrase 'There's no place like Nebraska' wrote better than they thought. In Nebraska, you don't have to die to go to hell."

The people who survived that time period are a tough lot, and I wondered, while reading, whether I could have weathered that decade. More importantly, I wondered whether I would have to survive conditions like that and then look back on another period of hubris. Let's hope not.

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