The Worst Hard Time Revisited: Oklahoma in the Dust Bowl Years

Fall 2009

Those who lived through the tumultuous decade of the 1930’s—the “Dirty Thirties”— experienced one of the greatest ecological and economic disasters ever to strike Oklahoma and most of the Southern Plains of the United States, and the legacy of that decade remains with us today. Beginning in the summer of 1931, eight years of extreme weather conditions ruined farm communities across the plains. Ill-suited farming techniques coupled with the lack of rain and high winds resulted in a relentless series of choking dust storms. The term “Dust Bowl” was coined to describe the parched, barren landscape, and the Oklahoma Panhandle in particular became No Man’s Land of despair—ground zero in this great American tragedy—as a way of life seemed to come to an end. From these hardships, paradoxically, courage and determination to survive emerge. Through history, novels, letters, and poetry, what can we grasp about how ordinary people coped with extraordinary circumstances? The books in this series give voice to the sorrows, struggles, and great endurances of these people. As we confront another time of ecological and economic challenges now, can we learn from the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression? If you want to explore how the readings can move us, provoke us, inform us, and urge us onward today, please join us for this “Let’s Talk About It, Oklahoma” reading and discussion series to explore and discover.

Oklahoma City University invites participants to make these books come alive in the readings of this five-part series. At each session, a Humanities scholar will make a 30-40 minute presentation on the book in the context of the theme. Small group discussion will follow with experienced discussion leaders. At the end, everyone will come together for a brief wrap-up. Anyone interested in participating is encouraged to pre-register and borrow the reading selections and theme brochure by calling Harbour Winn at 208-5472, emailing him at, or dropping by the Dulaney-Browne Library, Room 211. (Note the office is located in the five-story building southwest of Walker Center.) Information can also be found on the web site of Center for Interpersonal Studies through Film & Literature:

The series will be held in Walker Center, Room 151, on the Oklahoma City University campus from 7:00 to 9:00 PM on Tuesdays, beginning September 15 and continuing on alternate Tuesdays through November 10. Books, services, and other materials for this series of programs are provided by “Let’s Talk About It, Oklahoma,” a project of the Oklahoma Humanities Council with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Funding for this series was provided by a grant from the Inasmuch Foundation.


9/15/2009 Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time

Winner of the 2006 National Book Award for Nonfiction, Egan’s book examines the history of the Dust Bowl region and provides personal histories of those who lived through the drought and devastation of the era. Walter Cronkite’s description of the book—“This is can’t-put-it-down history”—aptly indicates what awaits us.

9/29/2009 Caroline Henderson’s Letters from the Dust Bowl (ed. by Alvin O. Turner)

An educated homesteader committed to the Jefferson vision of the American dream, Henderson presents an unusual inside look at life during the Dust Bowl. Her articles and personal correspondence, dating from 1908 to 1966, give us a fascinating glimpse of farm life on the plains.

10/13/2009 Josephine W. Johnson’s Now in November

Winner of the 1935 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Johnson’s moving novel renders a vivid portrait of family life and the journey from girlhood to adulthood through the point of view of a daughter. The backdrop of labor unrest, strikes, racism, and gender roles places the book in its historical time.

10/27/2009 Sanora Babb’s Whose Names are Unknown

Written in 1939 but not published until 2004 because of Steinbeck’s success, Babb’s long-hidden novel powerfully tells the story of farmers who fled the dust storms only to find the degrading conditions of work farms in California. How does this novel stand up to the epic sweep of “The Grapes of Wrath?”

11/10/2009 Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust

Winner of the Newbury Medal, Hesse’s novel recounts the coming of age of her protagonist amidst the landscape of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. Written in memorable free verse, Hesse paints an eloquent closing view of our series theme.