The Worst Hard Time Summary and Study Guide

Timothy Egan

The Worst Hard Time

  • 59-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 25 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a former professor with both an Master's degree
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The Worst Hard Time Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 59-page guide for “The Worst Hard Time” by Timothy Egan includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 25 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Racial and Geographical Prejudice and Authority Figures Not Knowing What to Do.

Plot Summary

The Worst Hard Time, written by New York Times journalist Timothy Egan, won the National Book Award for Nonfiction (2006) and the Washington State Book Award (2006). Egan chronicles the history of the Dust Bowl from the late 1800s to 1939, unfolding the tragedy of errors that led to the environmental and economic disasters of the 1930s. Readers experience historical events through stories of survivors: farmers, cowboys, ranchers, merchants, investors and professionals. Egan chooses survivors from the worst hit areas. The towns and counties his main characters are from form an almost perfect circle of the Dust Bowl. Egan begins in southern Nebraska (Inavale);then drops south, to eastern Oklahoma (Shattuck); continues west, through the Texas and Oklahoma panhandle areas (Dalhart, and Boise City); and finishes in the southeast corner of Colorado (Baca County).

In the first section of The Worst Hard Time (“Promise: The Great Plow-up, 1901-1930”), Egan describes how real estate agents, railroads, writers, and the United States government entice settlers to inhabit the Dust Bowl region. One real estate company in Boise City, Oklahoma sells fraudulent lots by distributing fliers with false pictures of trees and a gushing water fountain in the center of town. Campbell’s Soil Culture Manual (stamped and approved by the U.S. agricultural office) assures prosperous farming and recommends farmers to use dust to moisturize the soil. Farmers are told that “the act of plowing itself would bring additional rain, causing atmospheric disturbances. Rain follows the plow? Damn right!” (24).

Authors write books on how to get rich quickly on the prairie. Railroad companies print brochures in German, targeting German Russians (like George Ehrlich), who are desperately fleeing the czar. However, it’s the government’s push to settle the High Plains by offering free land through the Homestead Acts (beginning in 1862) that draw the greatest number of settlers to the Great Plains. The Homestead Acts promise the American dream: wealth, prosperity and “every man a landlord!” (36). At first this dream appears to be coming true: the homesteaders build dugouts and windmills, plow their land, and buy tractors, tripling their production and wealth (from roughly 1915 to 1929).The government pushes for even more wheat cultivation in an effort to support World War I. The High Plains farmers respond to the government’s call by producing a record wheat yield, but the result of over-plowing wheat causes a wheat surplus, which drastically reduces wheat prices. By 1930, the rippling effects of the 1929 Stock Market Crash reach the High Plains. By 1930, the price of wheat per bushel doesn’t even pay for production costs. When the High Plains farmers are making zero profit, the region’s main source of income is gone. Farmers can’t pay taxes, and even schools close. At the same time, ranches are overstocked with cattle, which causes beef prices to drop. With no money circulating, the High Plains economy collapses.

In the second section of The Worst Hard Time (“Betrayal, 1931-1933”), Egan details the events that lead the settlers of the Dust Bowl into a period of distrust and unrest. Banks are foreclosing on hard-working farmers, taking their customers’ life savings and shutting down. Crowds bang on the banks’ doors or demand the sheriff to open the door, but many bankers, who the farmers once considered their friends and neighbors, have left town. Broke and starving, local farmers ask President Hoover to buy their grain and at least feed it to the hungry families of the Depression, but Hoover refuses. Hoover’s lack of sympathy for the farmers causes Franklin D. Roosevelt to beat Hoover by a landslide in 1932. When FDR takes office, he immediately summons Congress and signs the Emergency Banking Bill, which guaranteed deposits in banks up to ten thousand dollars (after the government monitored banks and proved them solvent). The president goes on the radio asking the American people not to withdraw their money from banks because of his new money guarantee. FDR’s strategy works. Within weeks, the majority of banks deposits finally exceed the withdrawals. Meanwhile, “at the Panhandle A & M weather station, they recorded seventy days of severe dust storms in 1933” (137).

The third and final section of The Worst Hard Time(“Blowup, 1934-1939”) describes the terror of more dust storms, and climaxes with graphic eyewitness accounts by the main characters of the most destructive black duster in American’s history: August 14, 1935 (Black Sunday). The devastation of this event divides Dust Bowl residents into two groups: the ones who go, and the ones who stay. After Black Sunday, FDR orders Hugh Bennett, an agriculturalist in his Interior Department, to submit a formal report and get to the bottom of what’s causing the dusters and the economic downturn in the Dust Bowl. Bennett’s 1936 report states that the government misled the American people when it promoted homestead plowing and pushing wheat production during World War I. The report also reveals that when the government enticed homesteaders into the Dust Bowl, and pushed them to produce even more wheat during World War I, this caused a wheat surplus and subsequent wheat price crash. Other disturbing news released in the report is when the farmers over-plowed, they severed the resilient grass roots from its topsoil. The topsoil, which once was sewn into the soil, was now completely loose. This loose soil was being sucked into normal dust storms with the high-powered winds so common to the High Plains. All this airborne loose dirt (303,000 tons just on Black Sunday) was what was causing the black dusters that the residents of the region have never seen before. To solve the loose topsoil problem, Hugh Bennett advocates reseeding the grasslands, and contour plowing in furrows to detract wind. The report becomes the manifesto for FDR’s New Deal, and eventually Congress approves Bennett’s plan, Operation Dust Bowl, to restore the Dust Bowl land and economy. Bennett also creates a new government agency that will help farmers preserve the soil now and conserve the soil for future generations. The agency becomes the only grassroots operation of FDR’s New Deal that still exists in the 21st century. Bennett offers no guarantees that Operation Dust Bowl will work, but Egan cites a 2004 scientific agricultural report that concludes it was Bennett’s plan that saved the land and farming economy of the Dust Bowl.

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