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  • The Big Empty: The Great Plains in the Twentieth Century
  • Paul H. Carlson
The Big Empty: The Great Plains in the Twentieth Century. By Douglas Hurt. (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011. Pp. 322. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN 9780816529704, $65.00 cloth; ISBN 9780816529728, $29.95 paper.)

The boundaries of the Great Plains are imprecise, but here author Douglas Hurt defines the region in a broad, commonly accepted tradition. He includes the Canadian Prairie Provinces in his definition, but in this book his historical coverage concentrates on the prairie and plains of the United States. [End Page 82]

The historical sweep is likewise broad. It is more general than specific, but the author maintains a balance in coverage between northern and southern plains states. In some depth he considers women and other minorities, he looks at rural areas more than cities and towns, and he reviews agricultural activities in detail. There is an emphasis on conservation and environmental concerns. In reading the early chapters, one is left with a general impression that all is economic disaster on Great Plains farms. Considering agricultural economics of the 1920s and 1930s perhaps there is good reason for the pessimistic tone.

The book is about more than agriculture. The author covers oil and gas booms in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. He examines the impact of World Wars I and II on the Great Plains and its people, and how residents of the region responded to the wars; the section on World War II is particularly well done and full of insight. He looks at politics and rightly notes how the region is largely conservative and in modern times Republican, but he also discusses the liberal tradition that has appeared from time to time—Wobblies, the right to vote for women, and the Nonpartisan League, for examples. He writes about discrimination and racial prejudice, immigration, government Indian policy, grasshopper plagues, radical farm groups, shelterbelts, city growth and rural population decline, mining, drought, irrigation, dam building, and many other relevant topics. He does not write much about education, literature, or art.

The author is at his best when he writes about agricultural policy. His discussions of agricultural law are thorough, including the many laws passed and agencies created for farmers during the New Deal years of the 1930s. But he also handles with proficiency the role of federal government assistance on the Great Plains, including topics like military bases during World War II and strategic defense initiatives in the 1960s and afterwards.

The book represents economic, political, and to lesser extent social history. The epilogue very briefly mentions some of the region's writers and their works, but the book otherwise contains little cultural history. Although, granted, it is unfair to criticize a book for what it does not cover, one wishes that for Texas there was more about the effect of school consolidation on rural communities, more about the consequences—short and long range—on agriculture of the shift from horse power to tractor and truck power, and something on the impact of the Farm to Market Road system after passage of the Colson-Briscoe Act in 1949.

As the subtitle implies, the book is a general survey. Nonetheless, it is often marked by careful analyses and competent reflections. The idea of the "Big Empty" in the title might be overdrawn, but clearly there are large regions of the Great Plains where population decline or rural emptiness inspired the book's title and central theme. Finally, the writing is unadorned, direct, and straightforward; except for sometimes convoluted topic sentences, it is effective. In short, The Big Empty is an impressive book.

Paul H. Carlson
Texas Tech University


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