The Dog Doesn’t Die

Book reviews & random thoughts

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan

This well-told, engrossing history of the Dust Bowl years won the National Book Award, and rightly so. Author Timothy Egan gives us vivid characters, fast pacing, and intriguing plots and subplots — not easy to do when history is so often full of dull minutiae that must be conveyed for the story to make sense. But Egan even makes the struggles within the Federal bureaucracy sound exciting.

He starts by describing what the southern Great Plains were like before settlement. These vast grasslands sustained buffalo and the native peoples who hunted them for purpose, not sport. Then the bison were killed off by the white settlers, who moved in cattle and, eventually, wheat farms. What we had here was a fragile environment disrupted in the worst possible way, leading to Egan’s “worst hard time” with the dust storms. The needs of cattle differ from those of bison, and wheat doesn’t grow in the same way as prairie grass. Just as the Great Depression hit and wheat cultivation became a financial liability, a sustained drought began. The winds stirred up dust so bad that it engulfed entire towns for days, seeping into even the most meticulously sealed windows and doors. People died of “dust pneumonia” and suffered other ailments caused by the fine dirt particles that surrounded them. Meanwhile, tons of top soil disappeared every day. Despite new agricultural practices introduced to hold down the soil and conserve the land, the region is still less populated than it was almost 80 years ago.

All of this is seen through the eyes of those who lived it. White-gloved schoolteacher Hazel Lucas Shaw tried to make the best of it despite the dust creating tragedy in her life, former ranch-hand Bam White struggled to keep his head up while self-medicating with grain alchohol, bloviating hypocrite John McCarty used his media outlet to deny that government help was even needed (there’s one like him in every crisis, I guess), and innovative soil conservationist Hugh Bennett timed a Senate hearing to the arrival of an enormous dust cloud in Washington DC, hundreds of miles from its origin. These and other individuals make Egan’s history come alive.

Unfortunately, as the people suffered, so did the animals. Therefore, I have to declare this book UNSAFE for animal lovers who don’t want to read about animal suffering. There was a lot of it, from chickens to rabbits to cattle. No species was safe from the dust that permeated every aspect of life in the Dust Bowl on an almost daily basis for years on end.

Nonetheless, if you can handle that, I strongly recommend this book.


April 1, 2009 - Posted by | animals, Book Reviews, history | , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Ugh. Okay, I’ll pass. Aside from not wanting to think about animals suffering just in general, I’m on a chicken kick and could not handle reading about them being in pain.

    Comment by Terri | April 1, 2009 | Reply

  2. Yup, lots of suffering animals here. It was a really well-written book, but I don’t want to hear about the cows and chickens choking on dust. Especially dust that was not a natural disaster, but caused by the settlers.

    Tried to read his new book The Big Burn a couple of weeks ago and loved the beginning where Teddy Roosevelt massively expanded our National Park system. Millions of animals saved! But then I stopped before he got to the fire where, obviously, millions of animals would be dying.

    Comment by gustines | November 1, 2009 | Reply

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