Annie Bell could have chosen to marry a well-to-do member of the gentry in her home town, a man with fine china and a full time kitchen servant. Young and buoyant, she chooses love instead, and moves to Oklahoma with Samuel Bell to start a brand new life on the free land that’s been provided. What could go wrong when two young people are strong and dedicated to one another? Oh, it’s an old, old story in so many ways, but Meadows makes it brand new. Thanks to Net Galley and Henry Holt Publishers, I read it free and in advance in exchange for this honest review. It will be available to the public August 9, 2016.
When we join the Bells they are no longer newlyweds; a lot of water has gone under the bridge. They have Birdie, a teenager determined to find a way out of Mulehead, and their younger child Fred, a child beset with heavy health issues. He’s sturdier, however, than the baby that didn’t make it. So Annie and Samuel have had success, some fine fertile years on their farm when the wheat was tall and the rain came when it was needed, but they’ve also endured some heartache. Regardless, every Sunday they gather at the only house of worship in town and send up their thanks and prayers for the blessings of nature, and perhaps to ward off its curses as well.
But then, things deteriorate in a horrifying way. Without the sturdy prairie grasses to hold down the topsoil, it is depleted and finally just blown away in the horrible wind storms that come in terrifying intensity, a veritable hurricane of dust instead of water. There is no insulation that withstands the fierce and immeasurable storms, ones that turn day dark as night and fill every crevice in every home, barn, and public building with a layer of grit. Dust isn’t just on the bed, it’s in it. Dust is everywhere, including inside the lungs of little children. And so it is that Fred is stricken with dust pneumonia, an ailment akin to Black Lung disease but without even a paycheck to show for it.
In the midst of it all, Samuel has a message from God: the rain will come, and Samuel must build a boat. And so as the wheat dies beneath the remorseless sun, as the water is rationed and the cattle grow thin, Samuel goes to the barn and commences planning and building the ark that will save his family from the flood.
Everyone in town is laughing at him, but that doesn’t matter to Samuel; he has heard from God.
Meadows is a clever wordsmith, and her capacity to spin setting and develop character are impressive. Young Birdie is in so many ways her mother all over again, and yet Annie is unable to breach the abyss that separates her from her teenage daughter. Annie has learned a lot and she’s learned it the hard way, through experience; Birdie wants nothing to do with any of it, or with Annie. At times I longed to grab that girl by the shoulders and send her into the kitchen for a chat with her mother, but if I could have done so, she wouldn’t have listened anyway. Hopefully this gives the reader a glimpse of how real these characters became to me.
Most of the way through this compelling novel I was sure it would merit five stars, yet the ending left me dissatisfied. Even if I could explain this without spoiling it for you, I’m not sure what the writer should have done instead, but the denouement felt contrived to me even though in many ways it seemed like a reasonable ending. Perhaps you will feel differently.
You may have read other historical fiction set in the Dust Bowl, but you haven’t read anything like this. Check it out and see what you think. I’d hate for you to miss it.