Kate Southwood’s grim, gruesome, raw, and intimate novel FALLING TO EARTH is a story about conflict: man against nature, man against man, and man against himself. Southwood’s spare and measured prose attests to the fragility of life and the ultimate triumph of the human spirit. However, there is a darker side to this story—one where fear, jealousy, and suspicion wreak havoc on a man and his family. FALLING TO EARTH is also a timely novel in a year, make that a decade, of extreme weather phenomena.
Southwood sets her tale in Marah, Illinois, in 1925. Not only does she adequately depict life in a Midwestern small town full of proud, hardscrabble people, but she also brings a real event to vivid and terrifying life: the historic Tri-State tornado that devastated the town of Marah and then tore a destructive swath through Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. At the time, it was the deadliest tornado in American history, killing 695 people and injuring 2,027.
The tornado hit on March 18, 1925, and FALLING TO EARTH begins moments before the tornado strikes. “The cloud is black, shot through with red and orange and purple, a vein of gold at its crest,” Southwood writes. The tornado is “a mile wide end to end.” The “people in the town scatter; some find shelter. The men and women running through the streets are mothers and fathers, desperate to reach their children at the schools. There is no time; the cloud is rolling over them.” Many scream, but the wind “screams louder” as the “school, the town hall, the shops at the rail yard fold in on themselves and the people inside.” Once “the cloud passes, the fires begin, lapping at the broken town.”
This electrifying opening sets the stage for what is to come. Southwood never lets up but takes readers on a swiftly-paced ride to a shocking conclusion, illustrating the brutal and arbitrary state of nature and, sometimes, of people.
Paul Graves, Southwood’s central character, counts himself and his family lucky. While his friends and neighbors lose loved ones, businesses, and homes, Paul survives the tornado unscathed. He and his family are not even injured, and Paul’s home and his business are undamaged. As the shaken and shattered townspeople of Marah come together to rebuild their lives and their community (without social media to aid them, I might add), they cannot help but look for someone to blame.
The citizens of Marah feel jealous of Paul. He has everything while their whole world is crumbling. They have nothing. Paul experiences overwhelming guilt over his survival, and that sensation only magnifies as his business prospers during the town’s resurgence. Soon, though, the townspeople come to resent Paul and his good fortune and grow hostile toward him and his family. The consequences are tragic.
Southwood’s themes are universal ones: love, family, loss, death, mourning, guilt, and distrust. FALLING TO EARTH is an elegiac tale, yet pockets of hope exist in this story and in Marah, just as they do everywhere, even in times of utter destruction. Humans have mastered so much in this world of ours, yet we still have not bested nature. Mother Nature still reigns over us and perhaps always will.
Sometimes our true selves are only revealed in times of crises, and that is certainly the case in FALLING TO EARTH. Southwood’s characters are in such pain that it moves us and twists our hearts, but in no way does their grief excuse their actions. FALLING TO EARTH forces us to take a good look at ourselves and how we would react in a similar situation. When Southwood injects the most human of emotions—jealousy and suspicion—into her story, she makes it all the more gritty, weighty, and real.
FALLING TO EARTH is a powerfully moving and affective debut, and that is why Barnes and Noble chose it as a Discover Great New Writers selection for spring. Certain passages describing the dead are difficult to read, but a little discomfort is well worth it, for Southwood is a bright new literary talent.