Monday, June 25, 2012

A Torrent of Suffering People: My Review of The Worst Hard Time

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust BowlThe Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My job is something of a conversation piece. When I share with a new friend that I edit books for a living, I get one of a relatively predictable range of responses, from the look of bewilderment that books are still being published and people are still reading them (I've seen that look in the mirror a few times, I must confess), to the fast-pitch of a long fantasized but never acknowledged idea for a first book, to my favorite: the broad smile as my newfound friend recalls a favorite or recently read book and talks at length about what's so great (or so terrible) about it. People who read but don't write love to read, and they love to talk about what they're reading or what they have read, and they love to hear about what I'm editing and what editing is like. It's a fun window into a friend's personality and interests, and a great way to quickly strengthen ties and build trust with each other. Plus, I sound like a big shot.

My neighbor across the street is one of those third types; we honestly have nearly nothing in common besides a zip code, an area code and a common love of good books. We've been neighbors for a long time now, so the glamour of my profession has long worn off for him, but he still relishes the opportunity to share what he's reading, and in the case of The Worst Hard Time, he went so far as to loan me the book. I like history, and I was in the market for another book, so I took him up on it.

The Great American Dust Bowl, for me, has been a bit of an enigma. I've seen some of the photos from the Great Plains of the mid-1930s, heard the songs of the era, read the Cliffs Notes for The Grapes of Wrath, and imagined how hard life must have been at the close of the agrarian age in America, during a drought whose damage was compounded by a worldwide financial crisis. But I really had no idea how truly bad it was, how calamitous a man-made disaster started brewing almost as soon as the frontier closed. "Dust Bowl," under the dust of time, sounds cute and innocuous, like a football joke in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. In reality it was the comeuppance for decades of criminally negligent pillaging of land, an epic of devastation that left many people dead, many more physically compromised and psychologically traumatized, the effects of which can still be seen as you drive through Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle and other southern plains states.

So, to the extent that Timothy Egan paints a picture of devastation, his book is remarkable. You can almost taste the dirt swarming the sky, can almost feel the clumps of topsoil raining down on you. You sweat in the hot summers that Egan narrates; you close your eyes and picture dugout houses with earthworms and black widow spiders crawling the walls and filthy sheets vainly blocking the onslaught of dust. His characterizations of the storms that "Dust Bowl" so inadequately evokes are vivid and arresting. It's the people Egan writes about that I find to be a bit much.

Don't get me wrong; I feel great sympathy for each character--real people, I should say, some of whom Egan interviewed, some of whom he discovered secondhand, and one of whom he anthologizes from a nearly lost diary. It's just that there are so many of them. Town after town, household after household, person after person, they swirl around me like the plague of grasshoppers he reports toward the end of the book. No sooner do I begin to recall details already reported on the character of the moment--details that orient me to this latest scene--than I am disoriented by a shift of focus to someone else, in some other town, with some other network of relationships. It's a torrent of suffering people; I can't concentrate long enough to truly relate.

I'm reminded of a time I was in New Orleans, walking in the cool of the evening, following a dog for kicks. I encountered a homeless man and handed him a dollar and continued to follow the dog. I passed another homeless man and gave him a dollar and kept following the dog. Two or three more homeless people, two or three more dollars. The dog led me up and over a hill, where I found myself facing twenty or thirty homeless people warming themselves by a fire. They looked at me, and I looked at them, and I turned around and left.

That was visceral, face to face. The Worst Hard Time recounts a story that I am separated from by decades. I read it on mass-market paper at my leisure. Quite frankly, I find it hard to stay present to the story. For all the immense suffering these people endured--some of the worst in American history, at a time within two generations of this typing--I find it hard to care.

It's really too bad, and I can't blame Egan entirely for it. Compassion fatigue is a real thing, and I do a fair bit of reading about people today who desperately need my compassion. But as good a writer as Egan can be, he's better at writing about forces of nature than he is at writing about people. They come off as often as not as caricatures, bedecked with purplish prose and Americana. I endured their tales of woe, eager to encounter each new storm.

When I was in college a dust storm blew through our campus. I'd never experienced anything like it: blinding and painful dust, blowing fast and relentlessly, finding its way onto every surface and messing everything up. My friend had borrowed my first-edition compilation of The Dark Knight Returns, one of my prized possessions, and tossed it under his bed; I got it back utterly coated in dirt and grime, most of which (though not nearly all of it) tracing back to this storm. I think of that night on my campus and I imagine waking up every day for the better part of a decade waiting for the storm to come, going to bed every night after surveying the day's damage; I imagine breathing the dust in and coughing the dust up till my ribs cracked from the exertion of it. I imagine those things and I feel for the people who endured it. I read The Worst Hard Time and then I move on to the next book. It's not all Egan's fault, but I wish for the sake of the memory of those people that he'd held my attention better.

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