The Berkshire Edge: "n this disturbing and honest exploration of human nature, Kate Southwood has done something remarkable and ruthless by asking over and over in different ways and through a memorable cast of characters: Is it always better to survive?"
Date: Aug 3 2015
In 1925, the worst tornado in U.S. history, measuring nearly a mile wide, traveled for more than three hours and almost 220 miles across Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana, earning its moniker — the Tri-State Tornado — and killing more people (695) than any single tornado in the U.S. (before or since). Murphysboro, a town in southern Illinois, with 234 fatalities, was all but wiped out. In Kate Southwood’s debut novel Falling to Earth, the town is renamed Marah and we are transported into the house of the ironically named Graves family just hours before the storm hits. Then we bear witness as the funnel cloud brings the townspeople — though not the Graves, not yet — to their knees.
The Graves will be the only ones in Marah to lose nothing and no one and come through this disaster of almost biblical proportions seemingly unscathed. As a reader, I am at first relieved for them. The children — Ruby, Ellis, and Homer — their mother, Mae, and their grandmother Lavinia — all safe, thanks to the cellar that Paul built when he built their house (“overkill” is what his employees down at the lumberyard had called it, poking fun at him for taking such precautions). Paul, a hard-working man built for building things, had stepped outside his lumberyard downtown just as the tornado bore down. He’d “been facing the cloud and he’d known that that posture might save him” as he hugged a telegraph pole. “The wind had raised him off the sidewalk and snapped him hard like a flag, but he’d held tight.” Afterward, he’d turned, “expecting to see the lumberyard in ruins behind him,” but it was whole.
It doesn’t take long, however, for the Graves’ against-all-odds survival to take an eerie turn from miracle to liability. In one of the numerous chapters where we get to journey through Marah without the Graves by our side, we eavesdrop on a conversation between townsmen as they sit around a pyre of burning debris, keeping warm. “I heard [Paul Graves’] Ford got hit,” says one man. “Moved,” says another, clarifying. “It got itself moved, not hit.” Another man adds that Paul Graves’ kids weren’t even in school that day. “Home sick, all of ‘em, and down cellar.” And yet another man “frowns into the fire, shaking his head slowly, laboriously. To accept this news as true is to magnify his own anguish, to bitterly underscore the randomness of the storm . . . That just can’t be, he says, He can’t be the only one.” These are men who have lost wives. Children. Some of them both. Some of them more than that. Many of these same men will have to visit Paul at the lumberyard, because it’s the only place to go for wood — not for burning, but for burying. These same men will “broadcast the slanders, telling anyone who will listen that Graves Lumber is profiting from their misfortunes . . . . These men feel . . . a twist in the belly that comes as they say the words Paul Graves himself figured it this way, but their words spread like a blight, and in other people’s mouths begin to sound like the truth.”
In this disturbing and honest exploration of human nature, Kate Southwood has done something remarkable and ruthless by asking over and over in different ways and through a memorable cast of characters: Is it always better to survive? And will the Graves family survive survival? The answer, of course, is yes. And no.
John Steinbeck, Marilynne Robinson, Shakespeare, they all came to mind as I read this beautiful, devastating novel. It’s a tragedy for certain, strung together as it is by calamity, dumb luck, and fate. And it’s best described by its opening line: “The cloud is black, shot through with red and orange and purple, a vein of gold at its crest.” Replace “cloud” with “tale” and you’ll get the idea. In the case of the Graves and their unlucky survival, domestic disaster is born from a natural one. The gorgeous writing here, though, allows poignancy and air into a dark tale about a family’s love for their town, the land, each other, and the people they thought were their friends.