Just before 1 o’clock on the afternoon of March 18, 1925, over the farmland of southeastern Missouri, a column of air, spinning like a skater with her arms folded, came down from the clouds and touched ground. To prevent public panic, the word “tornado” had been officially banned from United States weather forecasts since 1887, so the regional forecast called only for rain and shifting winds. It was possibly the greatest understatement in the history of meteorology.
As if jolted by a Frankensteinian spark, the spinning air was transformed into a ravenous monstrosity. It began to career violently to the northeast, grinding, shredding, butchering. The average tornado measures about 50 yards across and travels only a few miles before disintegrating. The Tri-State Tornado of 1925 was almost a mile in width. It blasted forward for three and a half hours and 219 miles, from Missouri to Illinois to Indiana. The property damage was incalculable — schools, churches, theaters, whole towns leveled. The death toll was 695, the worst for a single tornado in American history.
There’s a long tradition in Western literature of stories about natural disasters that destroy entire cities and towns, a theme at least as old as Oedipus’ plague-ridden Thebes and the Old Testament’s Sodom and Gomorrah. But those are stories about divine punishment. In the modern tradition that begins with Voltaire and the Lisbon earthquake of 1748, the gods have stalked off the stage. Since then we’ve been given stories about the collapse of human nature under stress, stories about what Paul Tillich called “the anxiety of meaninglessness.”
Kate Southwood has written an absolutely gorgeous — and completely modern — first novel about the great tornado of 1925. She has plainly modeled her fictional town, Marah, on the devastated Murphysboro, Ill., where 234 people died, and she has drawn freely on period newspapers and survivors’ accounts. But in an act of wonderfully independent imagination, she has concentrated the narrative of FALLING TO EARTH on Paul and Mae Graves, the only couple in Marah whose house is untouched, whose children are safe, who lose nothing while everyone else loses everything.
Sometimes the written word brings to life what a camera only flattens and suspends. Here “a woman is frozen, screaming under a tree at a child’s body caught high in its branches.” Elsewhere “trees have been snatched out of the ground like hanks of hair.” The perfect verb can break your heart: “The living fan out across the town and come to rest. The end of the first day.” The biblical device of polysyndeton — “and” “and” “and” — creates an effect of unity, natural and human, in suffering: “There had only been the wreckage and the moonlight and a burnt smell hanging in the air for company.”
This remarkable prose is deployed in the service of parallel plots. The first follows Paul and Mae’s downward spiral from joy to guilt to maddening, undeserved isolation. As chastisement for the Graveses’ inexplicable good fortune, people shun them — their envy, as Dr. Johnson put it, “poisoning the banquet which they cannot taste.” The town comes together in search of a scapegoat. Customers boycott Paul’s lumberyard in order to bankrupt him. As Paul and Mae grow invisible to the others, like ghosts, bitter and despised, the second plot uncoils: the slow, tragic, inevitable ruin of their marriage.
Southwood’s beautifully constructed novel, so psychologically acute, is a meditation on loss in every sense. At the end, Mae understands that the storm has destroyed them “as surely as if they’d been snatched up bodily into the cloud. They were lost, each of them, changed beyond recognition, . . . lost in the very place they always had been.”