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When a publisher approached Timothy Egan about writing a book on the Dust Bowl era, Egan faced a reporter's conundrum: Most of the people who lived through those awful years are dead.
Egan is the author of several books, most about or strongly influenced by the Pacific Northwest. A Seattle-based national correspondent for The New York Times, Egan's first glint of the hard times created by the Dust Bowl came when he published Times stories, based on 2000 census figures, that showed the southern Great Plains as "a giant black hole" of population loss.
"Every county on the western edge of the Great Plains had lost population. I would hear people in the Southern Plains say, `Yeah, it goes back to the Dust Bowl,'" he says.
Then, based on his New York Times work, Houghton Mifflin editor Anton Mueller approached Egan about doing a Dust Bowl book.
"My big issue was - I didn't know if I could craft a narrative, and I didn't want to write an oral history," he says. "... I didn't want to write it if I couldn't do it as a contained narrative."
Plenty has been written about the Dust Bowl, the horrific dirt storms of the 1930s created by decades of plowing up fragile prairie followed by years of sustained drought. But for a compelling narrative, a writer needs real people, with stories of conflict, loss and heroism. In the following Q&A, Egan talks about how he found those people, and re-created their stories in the pages of "The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl" (Houghton Mifflin, 340 pp., $28):
Q: How did you find Dust Bowl survivors?
A: Before I signed the contract I made two trips to see if I could find some people. I went to Lamar, Colo., a tiny town in southeast Colorado.
I found Jeanne Clark - her mother was a Broadway dancer who had come to the Great Plains "for the air" (laughs). I fell in love with her. I talked to her for a long time - then I said, "does anyone else have stories like this?" Six people came the next day to a little roadside museum in the area. They just poured their stories out.
Then I met Ike Osteen (an 86-year-old Dust Bowl survivor who grew up in a dugout) - he still had a very spry mind. I found Melt White in Dalhart, Texas, who was great because he was half-cowboy, half-Indian. There was a family history written by a schoolteacher, Hazel Lucas Shaw. She moved to eastern Oklahoma to escape the Dust Bowl and try to save her little girl, who died anyway.
Q: Once you found your people, how did their stories shape the book?
A: I thought: How do I write this story? There were three different locations; Dalhart (Texas), Boise City (in the Oklahoma panhandle) and Baca County (in southeast Colorado). I was unable to make the people interact. What united them was events. Once I had three or four of these people I knew I could follow them. They move in, they dig in, they rise to a degree of prosperity - then nature exacts its terrible revenge.
The newspaper publisher (John L. McCarty, publisher of the Dalhart newspaper), he was the villain. Some guy came up to me after a reading and said, "You know what this book reminds me of? `Jaws.'" McCarty was like the town booster in that movie who didn't want anyone to know about the shark problem.
McCarty left behind prodigious writings. I could internalize him, based on his writings. There was even newsreel footage of him with the Last Man Club (a group of town boosters who vowed never to leave the Great Plains, no matter how bad things got). I wove him into the story because he provided a counterpoint - defiance of nature; the attitude that "we can turn this thing by sheer will."
Q: How did you find the diary of Nebraskan Don Hartwell, which chronicled the Dust Bowl at its very worst?
A: It was at the Nebraska State Historical Society at Lincoln; they didn't have a whole lot of material, and I was getting ready to go and this woman says, "we have this diary that we're just now finishing typing out."
It was a bitter man telling a bitter story. And he was such a good writer. For people who don't believe me or the prose about how bad it was - here's the evidence. He sensed from the beginning that something really horrible is going to happen.
The land bank took their land; he lost his friends. People sold their family heirlooms. But he really loved his wife. The hardest thing was when she moved to Denver to work as a maid.
Q: Reading "The Worst Hard Time," I was reminded that the Dust Bowl was the genesis for many of the social programs we still have today.
A: When it started there was no Social Security, no FDIC, no safety net. I was able to put the stories of all these individuals into the context of what was going on. Hoover, FDR, the New Deal, Hugh Bennett (founder of the Soil Conservation Service).
Bennett (and his colleagues) were the pioneer ecologists. They believed they could save the land - they were students of the soil. He told people - "you've practiced suicide on the land." A number of studies said the Soil Conservation Service saved what was left of that area.
Q: What's the area like today?
A: It has very little vibrancy to it. I tried to bring Boise City and Dalhart to life - that was a writer's job. In my writer's mind, I thought of them as vibrant places. Now - it just has a sense of dying, of decay. Not all the Southern Plains are that way. But the places I wrote about - it just seems like they won't be around in 50 years.
We don't have a rural culture any more. One out of three Americans worked the land in the 1930s. Now it's one percent. Those towns existed for one reason; to service small farms. You don't have that any more. Europe subsidizes its rural culture, but we can't decide how to do it.
Q: What drew you personally to this story?
A: I liked it because it seems so far removed from our time. But these people were our grandparents. It makes us seem like whiners by comparison.
I liked these people. I admired their grit. But at the same time - they know they screwed up. I had a hard time making sweeping judgments. You start by being impartial, but you fall in love with them. It makes it hard to make an objective judgment at the end.
(c) 2006, The Seattle Times. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.