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Dust Bowl saga dazzles with its fascinating history of human heroism and folly

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All his past work seems mere prologue for the new book by Timothy Egan of Seattle. Even his Northwest classic, "The Good Rain," and his Pulitzer Prize stories for The New York Times.

"The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl" (Houghton Mifflin, 312 pages, $28) is a flat-out masterpiece of historical reportage that should lift Egan onto the national best-seller lists for the first time. Here is an epic, yet grim saga of human folly and heroism, environmental madness and disaster, related with riveting prose, telling incidents, resplendent empathy.

Egan, a Northwest native, immersed himself in the desolate flatlands of the Plains ("like another planet to me") and returned to create an unforgettable portrait of a decadelong catastrophe that defies imagination with its horrendous scope and consequence.

"The Worst Hard Time" haunts the soul, not only with its unrelentingly sad story from the past, but also with how it could foreshadow the crisis of global warming, as humans abuse another crucial component of their fragile planet.

John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" has long been synonymous with the Dust Bowl in the American mind. But one of the great virtues of Egan's book is how he contradicts the belief that Steinbeck told the essential tale of that time and place with his classic novel about desperate Okies on the road.

Two-thirds of the residents of the Dust Bowl remained. Egan tells the lost story of "the people who stayed behind, for lack of money or lack of sense, the people who hunkered down out of loyalty or stubbornness, who believed in tomorrow because it was all they had in the bank."

What became the Dust Bowl was the true last frontier of the American West, a forbidding 100 million acres in parts of five states (Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas). For eons, this tabletop-flat landscape was covered with prairie grass named for its primary inhabitants, the buffalo that roamed in massive herds hunted by Indians.

By the start of the 20th century, the buffalo was gone and the Indians were displaced, opening this vast area to settlers lured by the government-promoted chance to own the cheapest land left in the country.

Plows cut through the buffalo grass and turned the earth in a frenzy of cultivation wrought by the high wheat prices of World War I and much of the 1920s. "Sodbusting" spread unchecked in years besotted with unseasonal rains and unrealistic dreams.

Massive "dusters" boiled up in the 1930s, cutting clouds of dirt particles that were nature's revenge for loss of the crucial grass holding the thin topsoil in place. The harsh daily life on the Plains, where many families huddled in dugout shelters scarcely a step up from caves, turned even more grim.

Crops withered away, basic human functions like breathing and eating turned life-threatening under the continuing onslaught of dust that infiltrated everything, plus also unleashed biblical plagues of insects and rabbits. Egan provides chilling accounts of massive rabbit-killing drives, where settlers chased and clubbed rabbits while still outfitted in their Sunday best, a perfect symbol of the collective madness that soon swept the Plains along with the gales.

Personal stories of wrenching heartbreak fill "The Worst Hard Time." Egan expertly knits unpublished diaries, newspaper archives, official reports and survivor interviews into a jaw-dropping page-turner of narrative that continually commands the question: How could people survive this? The babies who choked to death on the Dust Bowl version of pneumonia. The starvation fare of roadkill and tumbleweeds. The 40-mile winds that persisted for 100 hours. The black clouds that blotted out the sun.

"People had been lured to one of the last open spaces left on the American map by extravagant claims of water and prosperity," Egan writes. "Was it too late to simply call them back, to admit that the nesters had been duped and the land raped?"

Alas it was, and Dust Bowl scars still persist on that landscape and in the psyches of longtime residents. But why that continues decades later will no longer be forgotten, thanks to the chilling elegy provided by Egan's "The Worst Hard Time."

Critic's note: Egan began his career at the P-I, working here six years from 1978. This writer has known him since 1982.

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