Kate Southwood chose to set her first novel in the wake of the Tri-State Tornado of 1925, the deadliest twister ever recorded in the U.S. and one that ripped to shreds areas of Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana, resulting in nearly 700 deaths. More than 200 were in Murphysboro, the southern Illinois community on which Southwood based her fictional town of Marah. Following the tornado's devastation of Marah, detailed in a pair of harrowing opening chapters, Mae and Paul Graves realize that while the town's in ruins, their family is unharmed; their property is crudded over with mud but otherwise intact.
What ensues first is the Graveses' struggle to navigate their unusually fortunate circumstances without flaunting them, followed by their struggle to come to terms with what hasn't been taken away. They eventually become the town's scapegoats, scorned both for escaping loss and for seeming to profit from the grim business that floods Paul's lumberyard. As the townspeople desert the Graveses, Southwood is deliberate and focused in her prose, pulling the threads stitch by stitch as tension mounts and the family comes apart (there are powerful asides from inside the heads of both Paul and Mae, each wondering what the other is thinking). Inexorably, tragedy spawns tragedy in FALLING TO EARTH. It's the poise with which Southwood approaches it that makes it so heartbreaking.