I am in the middle of The Worst Hard Time
, by Timothy Egan, thanks to a recommendation via email from Mark
or a phone chat with TedBear (alas, no blog).
It's a history of the worst ecological disaster in this country, the transformation of the prairie grass sod of the high plains into wheat farms. It is particularly moving to read this account because my father, born in 1917, survived that time on a wheat farm 20 miles outside of Dodge City, Kansas.
From childhood, Daddy has told us about April 14, 1935, a beautiful day by every account I've ever heard and confirmed by the author's interviews with others. He and his cousins left church that Palm Sunday to play baseball. It was the first clear day anyone could remember, it was beautiful, and they thought the worst might be over.
The dust storm began in the Dakotas, sweeping down through Nebraska, 65 mile per hour winds pushing a menacing, enormous roiling black cloud, darker than anything seen before. It was Black Sunday, and the way my father tells it, they thought the world was ending.
The sky turned black and the air was thick with finest dust, so heavy with it that headlights made not a dent and the only break in the darkness came from the sparks of static electricity. My father and his cousins headed for home in an old Model T, Daddy standing on the running board to shout directions to my Uncle Bill, who was driving. When they found their way back to the farm, Bill and my father found their dad sitting at the kitchen table, covered in fine silt, reading his Bible. He, too, thought the world was ending on that terrible day.
The book delves into the roots of this disaster: greed, financial mismanagement, speculation, theft, manipulation of folks wanting to make a life for themselves, farming practices that should never have been implemented on the plains. The banks were going broke, taking the savings of small farmers with them. Wall Street was a disaster, and piles of the most abundant wheat crop ever harvested lay rotting in the railyards. It is an astonishing and cautionary tale in this time of rampant greed, speculation, and disregard for the environment.
This afternoon, I met my folks half way between Tulsa and their little city and I read to my father some of the passages from The Worst Hard Time
. At 89, seventy one years after Black Sunday, his eyes filled with tears as he listened to the words. His voice shook when he described his feelings from that day, the experiences of his family ~ my family ~ living through that wretched time.
It seems to me that the best books create a kind of resonance, a perfect pitch of identification, understanding, empathy. This book increased my understanding of a man I've known all my life, and the passages I read to him honored his experience and allowed him to again express feelings he has held inside for seventy one years.
So what are you reading? Planning to read? What? Tell me. I'll add them to my list. To Mark, Rodger, Tater and/or TedBear (and I do think it was you, cupcake, because it seems like I'm hearing that discussion), thanks sweetie(s). This one is a keeper.
Labels: books, daddy, dust bowl, friends, the worst hard time