The black storms that swept America's plains

Before Katrina: The tale of the Depression-era Dust Bowl.

As he reached back more than 70 years to chronicle America's epic dust storms, Timothy Egan couldn't have known his book would be released on the heels of hurricane Katrina. The weather patterns of today's Gulf Coast are completely different from those of the Depression-era Dust Bowl of the Great Plains. But the human stories are kin.

The Worst Hard Time depicts physical hardship on a larger scale than anything in recent American memory. In a literal No Man's Land - the chunk of Oklahoma tucked between Kansas, Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico - some of Egan's real-life characters struggle for years not only to survive, but simply to breathe. In frequent storms, millions of tons of dirt rain down from wind-whipped clouds, half burying homes and seeping in even through cracks covered with wet sheets.

Yet there's a strange promise inherent in this story. Readers willing to cross paths with the depths of human misery will also be rewarded with a deeper understanding of the capacity to survive - the ability to muster up courage, strength, and even optimism with which to bring new life into a world which seems unrelentingly dark.

As well as unearthing memories from diaries and elderly survivors, Egan fits together a compelling context - the interplay of politics, money, environmental forces, and the gamut of human motivations.

The setting is a swath of land once inhabited by native peoples, native grasses, and bison - land that existed in a sustainable cycle for hundreds of years.

But late in the 1800s, a homesteading law and tales of quick money began luring white farming families to settle in the region. And as these settlers arrived, they immediately began to plow up the grass - with disastrous results for the land.

"The tractors had done what no hailstorm, no blizzard, no tornado, no drought . . ., nothing in the natural history of the southern plains had ever done," writes Egan. "They had removed the native prairie grass ... so completely that by the end of 1931 it was a different land - thirty-three million acres stripped bare in the southern plains."

Just as the wheat crops abounded, prices plummeted during the Depression, and thousands of families started down the path to dire poverty. With nothing to hold down the dry earth during drought, dust storms were a way of life by 1933.

In Boise City, Okla., Hazel Lucas Shaw "watched the dust ... spread over the china, into the bedroom, onto the sheets. ... Some days Hazel put on her white gloves and sat at the table - a small act of defiance ... both silly and brave."

Even more bravely, she decided to have a child, and despite the air that doctors warned was unhealthy, she and her husband refused to leave their land.

They would change their minds a year later, but the rest of their story is best left to be discovered as Egan paces it out. He weaves together the tales of several families with stunning detail, displaying skills crafted as an author and a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times.

The wider world of local and national politics comes to life on a human scale as well. President Franklin Roosevelt manipulated banking and agricultural policies in an attempt to rescue Plains farmers, and he appointed scientist Hugh Bennett to head up a new agency to stabilize the soil. To get funding for a project, Bennett timed a presentation to congressmen to coincide with a dust storm; its clouds reached all the way to Washington and dropped the dirt of Oklahoma outside their window.

Just a few days before, residents of the Dust Bowl had endured Black Sunday - April 14, 1935 - when "the mother of all dusters" rendered people unable to see their hands in front of their faces.

Descriptions of illness in this book - affecting both people and animals - may seem unrelenting. But there are also victories and moments of light for those who prefer to focus on the spirit of survival.

For Ike Osteen, graduation day in 1935 was one such moment. His high school in Baca County, Colo., reclaimed the gym from the Red Cross emergency center in time for him to get his diploma - one of only nine children in his family to do so.

Osteen maintained his love for the land. After World War II, he returned to Baca County, where - as he approached his 90th birthday - he told Egan his story.

Stacy Teicher is on the Monitor staff.

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