Monday, April 30, 2018

Book review: Peculiar Savage Beauty by Jessica McCann, set in 1930s Kansas, plus US giveaway

Add Jessica McCann’s Peculiar Savage Beauty to the list of exceptional new historical novels featuring women making their mark in STEM.

Rosa Jean (RJ) Evans has just graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a geology master’s degree in 1934. Having secured a government job back in her hometown of Vanham, Kansas, a tiny farming community she left at age six after her parents died of influenza, RJ is preparing to purchase some land, set up a soil erosion experiment station, and convince local farmers – all men – to adopt conservation farming methods to help the soil revive. She has her work cut out for her.

The title comes from a passage from O Pioneers!, which also appears as the epigraph: “…the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty.” Willa Cather’s wise words echo strongly in McCann’s vivid descriptions of the Dust Bowl years on the Great Plains, and her themes relating to climatic disasters and the need for people to protect the environment.

author Jessica McCann
RJ proves an admirable, resourceful heroine from the outset, when she survives a dust storm while driving her truck solo from Wisconsin to Kansas. The harrowing experience also introduces her to her first friend, a stray dog she names Stormy. The other relationships RJ forms are just as heartwarming and meaningful. Woody Parker, a man about her age who we’d call autistic today, becomes her firm friend. Others label him as dim-witted, but RJ sees his thoughtfulness and brilliant artistic talents in the dust-paintings he creates in the storms’ aftermath, and he supports her when she runs into roadblocks.

Most of the local farmers don’t trust either “government bureaucrats” or women who claim to have knowledge they themselves don’t, when their families have been working the land for generations. There are rushes to judgment on all sides, and it’s rewarding to see characters slowly move beyond preconceptions to form understandings.

All the details on the setting bring readers back to the painful Dust Bowl years: the summer heat and never-ending drought, the mud accumulating in pipes and drinking water, the wires people strung on their property to lead them back home during a blinding storm, and the evening gatherings around the wireless for Roosevelt’s fireside chats. Excerpts from period songs add to the atmosphere (I had “Stormy Weather” playing in my head while reading), and McCann gets the cadence of the rural characters’ dialogue just right; they sound like my own Midwestern neighbors.

Although I wished for slightly more information on RJ’s earlier history, this is a compelling historical novel with a tangible sense of place. It never bends to stereotype, and its characters are well worth getting to know.

This review is the last stop on the novel's blog tour; thanks to Jessica McCann for sending me a copy at my request.  Peculiar Savage Beauty is published this month by Perspective Books in hardcover ($24) and as an ebook ($8.99).


5/8/18: Thanks to everyone who entered the giveaway, and congrats to Terry M.!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Sarah! I'm so happy you enjoyed it.