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The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

The dust storms that terrorized the High Plains in the darkest years of the Depression were like nothing ever seen before or since.

Timothy Egan’s critically acclaimed account rescues this iconic chapter of American history from the shadows in a tour de force of historical reportage. Following a dozen families and their communities through the rise and fall of the region, Egan tells of their desperate attempts to carry on through blinding black dust blizzards, crop failure, and the death of loved ones. Brilliantly capturing the terrifying drama of catastrophe, Egan does equal justice to the human characters who become his heroes, “the stoic, long-suffering men and women whose lives he opens up with urgency and respect” (New York Times).

Read more . . .

In an era that promises ever-greater natural disasters, The Worst Hard Time is “arguably the best nonfiction book yet” (Austin Statesman Journal) on the greatest environmental disaster ever to be visited upon our land and a powerful cautionary tale about the dangers of trifling with nature.
Houghton Mifflin; 1St Edition edition (December 14, 2005)

Book Club Ideas


The Dust Bowl was an American tragedy. There are paintings and photographic images available on the internet that reveal the epic scope of the destruction of The Great Plains that will definitely get conversation going.

Dust Bowl Artist Alexandre Hogue American 1898–1994.

Alexandre Hogue. Erosion No. 2. Mother Earth Laid Bare, 1936. Oil on canvas. Alexandre Hogue, Dust Bowl (1933) oil on canvas

Dust Bowl Photography

Migrant Mother, Photographer Dorthea Lange Fleeing a Dust Storm, Photographer Arthur Rothstein

Dust Storm Approaching Stratford, Texas, Credit: NOAA George E. Marsh Album


Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads was recorded in 1940. The Dust Bowl Ballads are semi-autobiographical, and chronicle the Dust Bowl refugee experience.

More …

The video below, The Plow that Broke the Plains by documentarian, Pare Lorentz, was shown in movie theaters across the country in 1936 and brought the plight of the High Plains to the forefront of the American conscience.

Note: The farmer shown pulling his horse drawn plow across the fields in the film is dust bowl survivor Bam White who was paid twenty-five dollars for his part.

Book Club Menu

Timothy Egan accounts the experiences of Dust Bowl survivors throughout the Great Plains. While each survivor’s story was a horrific tragedy, I was particularly drawn to the experiences of the Germans settlers who fled Russia’s Volga river valley to scrape out a living on the American plains.

The Hays City Sentinel of Kansas called the Volga Germans “the most exotic species on the Great Plains.”

Ideas for food to serve at The Worst Bad Time book club party can be found in the scenes of the Volga German wedding in 1929. The attendees had no inkling of the insidious and disastrous decade that would follow this celebration.

“The price of wheat may have been falling, but it could not spoil one American story. George Alexander Ehrlich sat at a wedding table in September 1929 and told his grandchildren what it had been like in the bad years on the Volga River in Russia … For five days in advance, the women of Shattuck, Oklahoma, had been cooking for this wedding, and the scent of fresh-made wurst and strudel drifted out the church to the fields. In the German settlements on the High Plains, there was no more defiant celebration of group survival than a wedding.”

There were many dishes served at this wedding, which included “steaming and rich” butterball soup, strudels and stewed apples.

Butterball Soup

Butterball Soup

Cabbage Strudel


German Stewed Apples

Stewed Apples

After the wedding feast, the Germans raised their glasses of “schnapps and the spritzy white wine made by the Germans in Oklahoma” to toast Catherine the Great and America, and to thank God “for their good fortune.”

Book Club Resources

Ratings at the time this post was published

Goodreads: 4.03 stars (29,461 ratings)
Amazon: 4.5 stars (1,459 ratings)
LibraryThing: 4.16 stars (776 ratings)
My Rating: 5 stars

Discussion Questions for The Worst Hard Time

Discussion questions are adapted from

1. Discuss what Egan presents as the reasons for the dust bowl tragedy. Was it a confluence of unforeseen events that produced the perfect storm? Or was it a man-made disaster that might have been avoided, or at least mitigated?
2. Should everyone have known better—was there enough known at the time about the impact of farming techniques on erosion?
3. Who tried to warn about the dangers of farming in the grasslands and what were the gist of their warnings? Why were they ignored? Is it simply human nature to take heed in hindsight rather than in real time?
4. Talk about the different characters in Egan’s story. Which of the families’ stories do you find particularly poignant? Which characters do you find most admirable?
5. What descriptions of the dust storms did you find most shocking or most tragic—Black Sunday, static electricity, dust pneumonia, just to name a few?
6. During the disaster, 250 million people left their homes—a diaspora about which Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath is written. But most residents stayed. What made them stay? Would it have been better to have left? Which choice would you have made?
7. What was the political outfall of the dust bowl? How did Washington eventually respond? What have been the lasting effects?
8. What lessons, if any, have we learned from the dust bowl catastrophe—about how human actions, well-intentioned or not, can lead to environmental damage? Is there anything comparable on the horizon today?

More talking points for your book club discussion from

  • “Surviving the Dust Bowl,” a 2007 documentary, part of the American Experience series on PBS, would make a valuable contribution to any book club discussion. The film footage is stunning. You could get a copy through your public library or through Netflix. (I would also like to include Ken Burns’ The Dust Bowl which aired on PBS November 18-19, 2012 on PBS.)
  • You might also pair this work with Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and discuss the human tragedies—and bravery—in both accounts.
  • Finally, don’t miss Timothy Egan’s extensive interview with his publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Purchase The Worst Hard Times at your favorite bookseller

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The Author

Timothy Egan Timothy Egan was born November 8, 1954 in Seattle, Washington. He has seven published books and is the recipient of numerous literary awards which include the National Book Award in 2006, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award in 1991 and 2010, and the Washington State Book Award in 2006 and 2010.Timothy Egan is also a Pulitzer Prize winning national correspondent for the New York Times and currently pens a weekly column for the New York Times. More information on Timothy Egan can be found at

Other Works by Timothy Egan and Recommended Reading

The Dust Bowl Through the Lens: How Photography Revealed and Helped Remedy a National Disaster

Personal Insights, Favorite Quotes, etc…

From Author Timothy Egan

The story of the people who lived through the nation’s hardest economic depression and its worst weather event is one of the great untold stories of the Greatest Generation. To me, there was an urgency to get this story now because the last of the people who lived through those dark years are in their final days. It’s their story, and I didn’t want them to take this narrative of horror and persistence to the grave. At the same time, this part of America — the rural counties of the Great Plains — looks like it’s dying. Our rural past seems so distant, like Dorothy’s Kansas in the Wizard of Oz. Yet it was within the lifetime of people living today that nearly one in three Americans worked on a farm. Now, the site of the old Dust Bowl — which covers parts of five states — is largely devoid of young families and emptying out by the day. It’s flyover country to most Americans. But it holds this remarkable tale that should be a larger part of our shared national story.

Do you have any other ideas or recipes for a book club party for The Worst Hard Times? We would love to have you share them with us! You can leave a comment below and upload pictures as well.

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