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Muse at Highway Speeds: "Southwood's prose is stark yet deeply felt."

Date: Mar 4 2013

Kate Southwood's debut novel, FALLING TO EARTH, takes place during and after the deadliest tornado in U.S. history, which killed 695 people across three states on March 18, 1925. Even being from Tornado Alley, I hadn't heard of this one--go look at that Wikipedia article, it's staggering.

FALLING TO EARTH is set in the fictional town of Marah, Illinois, where every family but one suffers a catastrophic loss: home, livelihood, spouse, child, all of the above. But the Graves family--Paul, Mae, Paul's mother Lavinia, and three children--are unscathed. Ruby, Ellis and Little Homer are home with chicken pox and hence escape the destruction of the school, full of students sheltering from the rain; with their mother and grandmother, they take shelter in the cellar Paul dug, emerging to discover their home still standing, merely covered with mud and dust like everything else in town. Paul himself somehow manages to hold onto a telegraph pole along the street outside his lumberyard, which also comes through unharmed, and the next day is burdened with the grim task of making coffins for 200 dead. (Note to non-Midwesterners: this is all entirely plausible. Tornadoes are weird, yo; they skip and lift and skitter, sometimes leaving a building untouched between two piles of rubble.)

At first, the stricken inhabitants of Marah view the Graves as a miracle, one good thing amongst all the horror. But as time goes on, they begin to see them as an affront, especially as they buy the lumber to rebuild from Paul's business. Why should he benefit from their misfortune? Resentment leads to contempt. The children are bullied at school; Mae withdraws further and further; Paul, stubbornly believing in the good hearts of his neighbors, meets their scowls with equanimity, waiting for it all to blow over until it's too late.

This is a beautiful, sad literary novel, which I say as someone for whom "sad literary novel" is a really hard sell. Southwood's prose is stark yet deeply felt, and her story reminds me of nothing so much as Thomas Hardy--where it's good people's own goodness that leads inevitably to tragedy.

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