A Novel for Tornado Season

Falling to Earth

By Kate Southwood

Tornado season has begun, with the latest striking Fairdale, Il, this past April 10. Fortunately, the 2015 season has gotten off to a slower than usual start that some have predicted will set the tone for the balance of the year. For more on this, please check out this website by a group of professionals with a passion for bad weather: United States Tornadoes.

You can find any number of fiction and nonfiction books featuring tornadoes. (You can look no further than this site, for a tornado plays an important role in the novel serialization The Inside-Out Woman that you can read from the beginning here.) One of the best dealing with how people behave in the midst of devastation is Kate Southwood’s Falling to Earth. It turns on an unexpected twist on this behavior.

By way of introducing the novel, consider that few events confirm our faith in the inherent goodness of humankind better than the aftermath of a natural disaster, as the outpouring of support for the victims of massive and shattering Sandy attested (barring, of course, the political nastiness that ensued; recall that?). Yet, does the picture of human kindness hold up on the most personal level, within the hearts and minds of the victims themselves? We’d like to believe so, as we’d like to believe we ourselves would be stalwart, giving, and gracious to our neighbors in the midst of our own suffering. Thus, we might find it jarring, perhaps a tad offensive, to consider we could be baser beings.

And therein lies the strength of Southwood’s novel, taking us where we don’t expect to go, and accepting the reasonableness of her proposition: that even the best of us can succumb to envy, pettiness, and the propagation of evil; and, worse, can find resurrection from our repulsive descent only in an appalling leveling of suffering. You may wish to take this as a caution and a guarantee: Falling to Earth will impress upon you, as it impresses you, an alternate lens through which to view a disaster, and you may not find it amiable.

Southwood transports us back to 1925, to the Tri-State Tornado, the deadliest in U.S. history, that spawned in Missouri, ravaged southern Illinois, where it took the most lives, and dissipated in Indiana, covering nearly 240 miles in under four hours, ending about 700 lives.

The novel opens as the storm strikes fictional Marah, IL, nearly sweeping lumberyard owner Paul Graves into the heavens. He survives, as does his wife, three children, and mother, as well as his lumber business and his home and his car, all intact, the car only turned around, the house only muddied up, the yard only littered with others’ debris. While all around, and beyond the town, devastation rained down upon his neighbors. No family or enterprise emerged whole, and families lost loved ones; all, except for Paul Graves and his family. What appears to be great luck turns over the course of the following months into the greatest curse, and ends as tragedy. For in bewilderment, resentment, envy, and anger, the town, people Paul and his family have known for a lifetime, among them his best friend, turn on him. Paul for his part desperately tries to expiate his sin of survival with all manner of placation, but to no avail. Only his wife Mae, like the sacrificial lamb, can turn the tide, but at a price too dear for Paul and his family.

While Southwood concerns herself for the most part with the alienation of the Graves family from the townspeople and from each other, she also plunges readers into post-disaster activities, including the laying out of bodies, construction of coffins, housing the dispossessed, and the like. She also paints harrowing pictures of the ruined landscape. Even more, however, she helps us internalize both emotionally and intellectually the impact of the destruction and instant transformation of lives. As an sample, here she describes the devastation simultaneously in physical and personal terms during cleanup and final scavenging:

“The women are heedful, watching for anything that could be spared. Was that a bit of fabric a tablecloth? What was that flash of color at its end, embroidery? No, it’s gone now, just look away. That broken rocker, whose place did that come from? Scrutinizing turns their faces sour; resentful eyes follow the arc of every scrap into the fire. They have all picked, bitter or bewildered, through the wreckage, their houses now nothing more than giant splinters. They have learned to walk on the ruins the way you walk on new, deep snow that can’t support you. And slowly, slowly, they are becoming as hard as the men who can look at a ruined thing and say it is ruined without stopping first to say, We had that thirty years.”

Highly recommended for doing what simple reportage doesn’t: putting us at the center of disaster in a personal way to illustrate how both our human strengths and weaknesses might come into play, for better or worse. c/w

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