In The Worst Hard Time, Egan describes the terrifying period known as the "Dirty '30s." Here he talks about its continuing significance for the land and its inhabitants.
What led you to the story of the Dust Bowl?
I roam all over the west and the plains for the [New York] Times, and we did a story a few years ago, right after the census numbers came out, that showed that even though the United States had gained something like 50 million people, this vast middle section of America was continuing to empty out. There's less than two people per square mile. I started to hear people tell these... you know, they'd say it with a whisper, these amazing stories of what happened in the Dirty '30s. And it struck me that this really was the great untold story up there.
How are the people doing who live in the southern plains now?
They were hard, strong people, but no one really went on to great or even moderate wealth. The only two things that are going there now—and they're not going that well—are pigs and prisons. They have these giant corporate hog farms, and they have prisons there, because there are no objections. The towns are dying right and left.... It was ghostly. It's got this haunting feel to it.
Is there a future for this region?
If the trends continue, this area will just be devoid of people. And it may revert in some way to what people once called the buffalo commons. They are putting buffalo back into some of these counties, and folks are welcoming them because they bring tourists. They have regrassed some of these sections. It's not too far-fetched to think that 30, 50 years from now this part of the southern plains might look like it did 200 years ago: largely grass and big animals, and people will come visit there. There'll be hunting preserves.
In telling about Black Sunday, the worst dust storm of all, how did you get the details of Joe Garza's experience?
You know where it is? It's an oral history at the Oklahoma Historical Society. They did a great thing about 20 years ago when they realized, as I realized, that these Dust Bowl witnesses were all dying. They went out and did a whole series of oral history recordings. I talked to the guy who interviewed Garza, who said he died a few days after he finished it. Garza really came across on tape as a pretty amazing individual. They were heroic. Imagine you or me living through a tenth of that. I know I wouldn't be strong enough.