Kicking up dust 

Egan digs into small-town America and emerges with national award

Without grass, the dust storms took over.
  • Without grass, the dust storms took over.

"The earth got its revenge," says Timothy Egan, summing up the 1930s Dust Bowl disaster, the topic of his book The Worst Hard Time. It is a conclusion that took years for him to reach.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter had been working on a series about the collapse of small-town America. He was traveling in the western Great Plains, seeing town after town that was losing its school, its bank, its Main Street. Since the Depression and the subsequent weakening of the farming industry, the towns had basically been losing their reasons to exist.

While those he met recognized the difficulties facing them, Egan was surprised by what he heard. People would say to him, "This is really sad, but it's nothing like what happened during the 1930s."

He would ask, "What do you mean?"

"Well, the Dust Bowl."

Egan was confused: "Didn't everyone leave? Wasn't that like the Steinbeck thing? Didn't everyone just go to California?"

At some point, he says, a light went off in his head. He checked some figures and found an overlooked historical fact that most of the people in the five states that made up the center of the Dust Bowl didn't go anywhere.

"It was the largest movement of Americans from a 'natural disaster' though I think the Dust Bowl was man-caused up until Hurricane Katrina," Egan says. "But 2 million of them, two-thirds of them, stayed put."

Egan realized that there was a great sense of urgency to this story, because it needed to be captured before all the people who lived through it faded away.

And so his journey to tell another tale of the Dust Bowl began. It turned into a story of what happens when people pushed by their government abuse the land and destroy an entire ecosystem; in this case, the grasslands of the Great Plains.

Egan says he tried to write the book as a fable of what happens when we let hubris, human dominance and greed get the most of us.

"Whether we've learned from it, I don't know," he says.

Pikes Peak Library District leaders seem to hope we can learn from it or at least talk about it. They've selected his 2006 National Book Award winner, along with John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, as All Pikes Peak Reads books for 2008. (The program is rounded out with two teen and two children's titles.)

Dee Vazquez, community relations and development officer for the PPLD, says they had wanted to choose a Steinbeck novel for a while and, aside from the Dust Bowl connections of the two, were drawn to the "man-made ecological disaster idea" and the pertinence and timeliness of Egan's book.

How does Egan feel about The Worst Hard Time being placed aside The Grapes of Wrath? He says he's honored and humbled, but that what's intriguing to him about the picks is that they're two completely different versions of one story. Steinbeck basically spends a chapter in the Dust Bowl and then heads to California, where his characters encounter new hardships working in fields.

"Mine is sort of the opposite end of it," Egan says. "It's folks persevering, trying to get through."



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