Horror stories about life in the Dust Bowl during the Depression have a special piquancy just now with drought fires sweeping over large tracts of Oklahoma and Texas and Kansas and Arkansas, and reading “The Worst Hard Times” by Timothy Egan (Houghton Mifflin, hard cover, $28) is just about guaranteed to raise the deja vu hair on your neck if you live in this part of the country or anywhere close. This is journalism, not fiction, but it’s a more harrowing account than Steinbeck’s, and somehow it hurts more to know that these people who were crushed and ruined and literally driven mad by the convergence of great economic and climatological forces were real people. There are survivors yet alive who are still haunted by memories of loved ones who had to suck that dirt into their lungs until they died. This isn’t a big book but it manages to wrap a national epic into its 300 pages. Timothy Egan, the author, is a reporter for the New York Times.
For you heavier thinkers on the topic of how the race issue transformed the South from a Democratic bastion to a redneck Republican redoubt during the Nixon era, there’s “The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South,” by Matthew D. Lassiter, from Princeton University Press (hardcover, $35). Lassiter is a history prof at Ann Arbor, Mich., and his book has drawn high critical praise — it is hailed as a “major reinterpretation” of the political transformation that occurred as a result of white flight to the suburbs — but I have to admit that the academic prose style of it, something of a Spengler-Myrdal mix, glazed me over after a couple of chapters. An example, just from the jacket promo: “The Silent Majority traces the emergence of a ‘color-blind’ ideology in the white middle class suburbs that defended residential segregation and neighborhood schools as the natural outcomes of market forces and individual meritocracy rather than the unconstitutional products of discriminatory public policies and …” yada yada etc.
An impressive new book from the University of Arkansas Press at Fayetteville is a reprint of the 1870 best seller, “The Autobiography of Samuel S. Hildebrand, The Renowned Missouri Bushwhacker.” Hildebrand was the most notorious of those psychotic murderers whose gangs terrorized the Ozarks during the Civil War. His bunch theoretically was made up of Confederates, but that cutthroat border trash didn’t discriminate much between Blue and Gray supporters in their rape and pillage and slaughter. In his book, Hildebrand claimed to have personally killed around a hundred people, none honorably, needless to say. He was no Cullen Baker, but not for lack of aspiration. After the war, he dictated his story to a couple of sympathetic journalists who, if they took the liberties that were customary at the time, surely got the tone right. Hildebrand was a vicious, unapologetic man, something of a John Brown in the other direction. He died appropriately after a bloody saloon brawl in Illinois in 1872, soon after the book had fanned his legend. The new UA Press reprint was edited and annotated by Kirby Ross, a Kansas journalist and historian, whose copious notes (nearly 100 pages of them) are as illuminating as Hildebrand’s account and are much more reliable.
Monograph from the Center for Arkansas Studies at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock is “Driving to Timbucktu: The Movement for Developmental Disabilities Services in Arkansas, 1944-1975,” by Elizabeth F. Shores. She’s a former Little Rock journalist , now an independent historian and senior research associate of the National Center for Rural Early Childhood Learning Initiatives at Mississippi State University.
-- By Bob Lancaster