Monday, January 25, 2021

Stormy Weather: a very short review

As was the case with the other Jiles novels I have read, Stormy Weather is a novel of strong women in hard times.

In this case, our heroine is Jeanine Stoddard, who had the bad luck to become a teenager just as the Great Depression arrived. Soon her family have become migrants, traveling from town to town as their father tries to find work.

They lose jobs, lose housing, lose belongings, make do with less and then still less, and then things start to get really bad, until Stormy Weather reaches a point where so many heart-breaking tragedies have been visted upon the Stoddards that I actually put the book down for a while to rest.

And then I picked it back up, and I am so glad I did.

Jeanine and her sisters don't just endure hardships, they triumph over them. She looks adversity in the mouth, gives it a swift punch in the chops, and somehow finds a way through it.

It's interesting to read a book about the Great Depression during the pandemic years of 2020-2021. And it's particularly interesting when it's an extremely well-written book, such as Stormy Weather. We, in our modern times, know only a little about the Great Depression. It wasn't so long ago, but it is now long enough in the past that most of us don't hear about the Great Depression from our grandparents or some other relatives who lived through it firsthand. Rather, people like me learn about the Great Depression from authors like Agee, or Steinbeck, or Dos Passos.

Perhaps Jiles is not yet ready to be classed among these, but Stormy Weather is beautiful and vivid in its own plain-spoken, blunt, direct manner:

So they began to make their lives there, throughout the fall and winter of 1937. They tried to piece their lives together the way people draw maps of remembered places; they get things wrong and out of proportion, they erase and redraw again. From the radio they heard of people dying in the dust storms just to the north of them, in Oklahoma and the Panhandle. That Gloria Vanderbilt was reduced to dressmaking for a living. Of the faraway rich with more money than there ever was in the world while men starved and had no work and women starved and worked both, of strikes at the textile mills in Rhode Island and all the people going to California to pick peas or whatever there was to pick. But the Hamilton clock seemed to tell only of their own long hours of labor against the dust and the drought. They were in the midst of the Dirty Thirties, and that decade's modish obsession with important people in far places, with gangsters and movie stars and oil barons and swing bands. It was easy to feel themselves invisible and empty of significance, to forget that behind every human life is an immense chain of happenstance that includes the gravest concerns; murder and theft and betrayal, great love; lives spent in burning spiritual devotion and others in miserly denial; that despite the supposed conformity of country places there might be an oil field worker who kept a trunk of fossil fish or a man with a desparate stutter who dreamed of being a radio announcer, a dwarf with a rivet gun or an old main on a rooftop with a telescope, spending her finest hours observing the harmonics of the planetary dance.

I'm sure it is easy, if you set out to write a book about the Great Depression, to want to write about "important people in far places," and to forget that the Depression was really about people who were "invisible and empty of significance."

Jiles is fully aware that the way you tell the stories of great events, such as the Civil War (Enemy Women) or the opening of the western frontier (News of the World) or the Great Depression (Stormy Weather), is to tell the stories of the ordinary people who inhabited these places and times. As she reveals in an afterword, the ordinary people in Stormy Weather, like those in Enemy Women and News of the World, were in fact her own ancestors, and the strength and honesty of her writing comes directly from the strength and honesty of these people, doing what they had to in the situations in which they found themselves.

And, somehow, though hard work, patience, effort, and a fair bit of that thing we call luck, such people find joy, as they always do:

This turned the conversation toward marriage in general. They waited out the dust storm that was hammering against the steel sides of the drive shed by giving their opinions on marriage during a time of Depression and drought and dust storms. And a very short man said that no matter what happened in the world people got married. It didn't have anything to do with what the weather was like or if you had any money or not, people just went and got married. Another man said that a war was coming and here this boy was in the service, that was something you had to keep in mind. He could get sent to some aerodrome in a foreign country. But the short man said it didn't matter about wars, either. It was the damnedest thing. He didn't know what would matter, anywise.

And, for me, this is what made Stormy Weather a near-perfect book for me to read during the dark days of the winter of 2020.

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