In one sense, “The Worst Hard Time” is the dustiest of all history books. But Kansas University officials hope it will intrigue an incoming class of freshmen.
The book, written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning news reporter, follows the lives of ordinary people, now in their 80s and 90s, who survived the Dust Bowl and the worst years of the Depression. For instance, Jeanne Clark, daughter of a Broadway dancer who moved west for her health, tells the story of almost being killed at school by a dust storm on Black Sunday on April 14, 1935. And Isaac Osteen, one of nine kids growing up in a dugout with their widowed mother on Cimarron River, tells of a time when cows went blind and suffocated from dust, and two men could be knocked down from the static electricity hidden in a handshake.
“The Worst Hard Time” will be distributed among freshmen entering the 2013-14 school year and incorporated in programs this fall. It’s the second go-round for KU’s Common Book Program, an effort to connect and involve freshmen and improve retention rates by uniting them around a shared reading assignment.
The book’s author, Timothy Egan, a New York Times reporter, is scheduled to visit campus for an appearance at the Lied Center on Sept. 26 and a hold a Q-and-A for students Sept. 27. He’ll also likely visit a classroom, said Christina Kerns, who coordinates the Common Book and other programs for KU’s new Office of First-Year Experience.
Egan served along with retired KU historian Donald Worster as an adviser on the Ken Burns “Dust Bowl” documentary that aired last year on PBS. He said he is looking forward to returning to Kansas, where he spent time researching the book, and meeting people with connections and family photos from a great American disaster that was almost forgotten for many years.
For freshmen opening the book for the first time, Egan suggested they try to imagine themselves in the places of survivors like Clark and Osteen.
“These people were 17, 18 years old when this happened,” Egan said. “Today, you look at the recession, and it’s hard to find jobs, but all of that pales in comparison to what happened then. There was no Social Security, no public assistance. People were eating roadkill. Try to compare your life to what these people — some of whom are still with us — went through.”
Not just dusty history
KU announced in December that “The Worst Hard Time” had been chosen by a committee from a pool of 125 nominations at the same time as KU’s first Common Book, “Notes from No Man’s Land” by Eula Biss. The committee still is working on a choice for the third Common Book, Kerns said, which will be announced in December. Students began participating in discussion groups for this year’s book as soon as they returned to campus, and Kerns said she is looking to find more courses and instructors to incorporate the book into their lessons.
“Hopefully, everyone has one thing that will appeal to them,” Kerns said. The Dust Bowl topic can be looked at from several fields of study, she said, from ecology to political science to public health.
“We don’t want this to be seen as just something that happened 80 years ago,” she said.
For some KU researchers, it’s easy to see a connection to modern times. Kansas already has been declared a federal disaster area this year, and Johannes Feddema, chair of KU’s geography department, said the region is almost certainly headed toward another Dust Bowl scenario, sooner or later, bringing the book’s dusty history dramatically into the current day.
“Things could actually get much worse than that,” Feddema said. “In fact, it has been worse in the past.”
KU researchers have found evidence in Kansas soils of cycles of extreme drought, worse than what children like Jeanne Clark lived through in the 1930s. Those drought cycles have taken place over thousands of years, but they inevitably return, and modern communities also must deal with climate change and ever-increasing demands for water.
“I think we need to put more thought into that process,” Feddema said. “This could be the first of 10 years of this stuff.”