I Can’t Breathe

A friend up here in the Northwoods slipped me a copy of The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. I was in her bathroom and saw it on the back of the toilet. My father used to do that—read in the bathroom—but I never have.

Some days later, this friend loaned me her book. It is, as the cover says, The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.

For reference, my friend said, “It’s very depressing.”

Walter Cronkite said, “This is can’t-put-it-down history,” which is also on the cover.

Having finished the book last night, I feel authorized to disagree with Walter Cronkite. Like a husband who experiences very real pain in his abdomen when his wife is in labor, so in reading the very personal stories of people breathing in dust for five years, I experienced very real trouble breathing in the here and now. Consequently, I put the book down many times in order to go outside, take my present bearings, and breathe in the fresh air.

It was the individual stories of people and families recounted in the book that got to me. Egan lays out where they came from and why they chose No-Man’s-Land to settle in, then takes the reader through their personal experiences during the Dust Bowl. We get to know what motivates each person so that we come to understand why the farmer, the doctor, the school teacher did not get out, but stayed to endure unbelievable hardship, accepting all of its consequences.

Those consequences led to ruined lungs, thriving lives replaced by barebones existence, loss of livelihoods and land, and for many, death.

In the end, farmers stayed put even as foreclosure pounded at their doors. As one resigned farmer wrote in his diary on December 12, 1936:

“Well, there is not a great deal to report. Winter, in Inavale, is just staying, just living. But I don’t look for or expect anything going on any more.”

I am thankful to be here in the Northwoods with a view of the lake peeking through the trees, breathing clean air, fresh and scented with pine.