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'The Worst Hard Time' nimbly chronicles tragedies of the Dust Bowl

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, By Timothy Egan, Houghton Mifflin, 340 pp, $28

The term ''Dust Bowl" often conjures a ''Grapes of Wrath" image of a great migration from worn-out farms in Texas and Oklahoma to green fields in other states.

Timothy Egan has focused on the farmers who stayed and who lived through the worst environmental disaster in our nation's history. ''The Worst Hard Time" is a powerful, deeply researched chronicle of the most destructive boom-and-bust cycle in American history: the wheat-growing frenzy in the Great Plains in the 1920s, which became the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. No region in America has ever been harder hit by reckless environmental practices.

Egan anchors the story on three towns in Texas, Oklahoma, and Colorado. Year by year, you get to know young couples struggling to keep their children alive, a resolute newspaperman, a cowboy father turned broken rancher, and high school kids barely hanging on to their youth.

Massive land mismanagement and a few years of drought transformed the Great Plains from waving fields of prairie grass into constantly shifting sand dunes that blocked roads, buried fences, and smothered gardens. The sand blew into the eyes and mouths of cows, blinding and suffocating them. It blew into the lungs of children and adults, creating a new, deadly illness: dust pneumonia, which carried a cough so brutal it could crack ribs. It drove some people mad.

Illuminating these hidden lives serves to strengthen the larger story of the Dust Bowl. Egan nimbly moves his lens between macro and micro, balancing hard data and national conditions with portraits of people you come to care about.

As with many economic catastrophes, the seeds of misfortune sprouted in a giddy fashion; this time in the lush 1920s, when prices skipped out of control and even the skies over the Great Plains bestowed above-average rain for much of the decade. The First World War generated a global need for wheat. Great Plains ranchers became farmers, and people poured into the region to grab cheap land and big profits. The latest technology helped them meet demand: Powerful tractors could plow staggering amounts of land per day.

Never mind that this land of ''high wind and low rainfall" was never meant to support large farms. The best plant for the region is hardy prairie grass, which thrives in the arid climate and can withstand the strong winds. For centuries prairie grass had nourished vast herds of bison, and more recently had sustained enormous cattle ranches. Most important, it had held the dry prairie soil in place.

Some, like the old cowboys, voiced concern about the wholesale destruction of the prairies, but even the Federal Bureau of Soils dismissed the warnings. In one report, it stated that the soil ''is the one resource that cannot be exhausted."

The wet weather of the 1920s faded away, ushering in what would become five years of drought when, as Egan notes, the sky ''held more betrayal than love." The Depression soon forced companies to stop buying wheat at any price.

Farmer after farmer went broke, leaving huge fields fallow. With nothing left to anchor the dirt, the air currents over the plains lifted it from the ground. Milled by the winds, the dirt became a fine, coarse sand that blew through even the tiniest cracks in homes, forcing families each day to hang wet sheets over windows, shovel (not sweep) floors, and brush off tables and beds.

The Great Plains had always had sandstorms, but no one, not even the experts at the National Weather Service, had ever seen anything like the dust storms of the 1930s. Towering ''black blizzards" of dirt blotted out the sun, making day appear blacker than any night. The storms' dry air carried enough static electricity to short out car engines and throw people across a room.

Occasionally Egan's writing edges toward the theatrical, but more often than not his style swells to fit the magnitude of monster storms and scales down to the individual families trapped in mind-numbing poverty. Decades later, it is nearly incomprehensible that it took less than 20 years to plow under and destroy 100 million acres, an area ''nearly half the size of England."

A boom-and-bust story needs a resolution, and ''The Worst Hard Time" reveals the fierce debates within the Roosevelt administration: about the cause of the devastation, how to combat it, and the remedies that emerged (such as the Soil Conservation Service). At a time when public attention is focused on the long-term federal response to this century's first large-scale environmental calamity, Hurricane Katrina, these sections seem instructive.

Egan has gone beyond statistics to reach the heart of this tragedy. ''The Worst Hard Time" provides a sobering, gripping account of a disaster whose wounds are still not fully healed today.

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