Monday, November 28, 2016

Rae Meadows' I Will Send Rain, a novel of the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma

“God doesn’t use weather as a weapon,” thinks Annie Bell, wife and mother in a farming family in Mulehead, Oklahoma, in 1934. The grass is dry and crunchy, their crops are producing a fraction of their normal yield, and the wall of heavy clouds that overtakes their land brings not the hoped-for rain but a thick whirlwind of dirt that coats their fields, their animals, and all their belongings – indeed their very lives.

Despite her status as a minister’s daughter, Annie doesn’t see their dire situation as any type of divine punishment. Her husband Samuel, on the other hand, holds to his Christian faith. In “dreams of ferocious rain” that disturb his sleep nightly, God appears to be calling him to a specific purpose.

Meanwhile, their 15-year-old daughter Barbara Ann, called Birdie, pursues her attraction to a neighbor’s son, and their youngest, Fred, an observant and fragile boy, cares for his hens and wanders around exploring the land. Although he’s unable to speak, he picks up on nuances that others miss.

The Dust Bowl was one of the worst ecological disasters of the 20th century.  In her fourth novel, Meadows keeps the focus tight and intimate, homing in on its damaging effects on one homesteading family.

The drought serves as a catalyst that drives each of the Bells onto separate paths. All are uprooted from their normal roles. Even sensible Annie, baffled by the odd behavior in the husband she loves, acts against what she feels is her true self by flirting with the mayor, Jack Lily, a younger man from Chicago.

The author lets these scenarios play out logically without passing judgment on anyone’s decisions. The land may be harsh and unwelcoming, but her tone is as compassionate as her language is rich, and it’s just what these characters need. Even Samuel, who could have been depicted as a stereotypical religious zealot, never loses his rational side, which makes his transformation even more unsettling. The story also makes plain that people and crops aren’t the environment’s only victims: the animals suffer greatly, too. The plight of the rabbits and cows are doubly tragic, since they’re betrayed by both the land and humans.

Timeless scenarios, like Birdie’s inability to see her mother as a woman with her own emotional needs, are made real and authentic. I particularly liked the depiction of the house abandoned by the Bells’ neighbors, the Woodrows. Left to desiccate after they take off for California, it comes to represent the unacknowledged side of people’s natures.

Other symbolism feels a bit too heavy-handed, like the wooden ark Samuel constructs with Fred’s help, and that subplot’s resolution. It feels out of place in a work that otherwise seems poignantly real. I also wondered how a young city guy like Jack Lily came to be elected mayor of a rural Great Plains town. Still, this is an admirable, deeply felt novel that gives voice to a proud, resilient family and the challenges that nature forces them to endure.

I Will Send Rain was published by Henry Holt in August (hb, 272pp, $26).  I picked up this ARC at the publisher's booth at BEA in May.

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