The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed combined with drought and the Dust Bowl sent much of America into survival mode. In West Texas, the Stoddard family struggles with frequent moves to oil field towns as Jack Stoddard follows oil field work. For everyone, from bankers to farmers, the poverty and hardships created by the double calamity of economic depression and drought had to be endured.
We are all somewhat familiar with the effects of the depression and the dust bowl, but Paulette Jiles brings to life characters and situations in a personal way that gives an intensity to the struggles and the resilience of the Stoddard family throughout the decade of the 1930's.
As in News of the World, the writing is evocative and the characters memorable and compelling. In Stormy Weather there is less of a plot and more of a feeling of memoir and endurance, and we follow Jeannine's story as the Stoddards move and move again, following the oil field until Jack Stoddard, the handsome, gambling and womanizing father dies as a result of a sour gas accident.
Jeannine and her mother Elizabeth and her two sisters don't have the $10 for the rent and must pack up and leave. They go back to the Tolliver house, where Elizabeth was born, which has been unoccupied for years and is shockingly run down.
The women persevere with, Jeannine often providing the motivation, even as she herself barely remembers the better times when her grandparents were alive and the place a going concern.
For me, this was an outstanding book for several reasons. My father was a petroleum engineer, and we lived in Texas when I was very young--so the descriptions of the oil fields of the 1930's were particularly interesting, even though they were before my father's time.
The characters were so real--not only the Stoddard women, but their friends and neighbors. When people manage to meet the constant challenges of difficult times with stamina and grit, we are able to better appreciate the simple facts of running water, grocery stores with fresh fruits and vegetables, and all of the unbelievable conveniences we have today.
The dust. The everlasting, unavoidable dust. In the air, in the house, the worst storms literally burying vehicles. Dust pneumonia caused by the lungs filling with dust, not fluid.
Ordinary people in extraordinary times.
"When her father was young, he was known to be a hand with horses. They said he could get any wage he asked for, that he could take on any job of freighting even in the fall when the rains were heavy and the oil field pipe had to be hauled over unpaved roads, when the mud was the color of solder and cased the wheel spokes."
"It was just before the bank failures in 1933, and the rest of the nation paused, dumbfounded, in their party clothes and tinfoil hats, in Chicago and New York and Los Angeles and New Orleans, while money fell like hot ashes out the bottoms of their pockets."
"...behind every human life is an immense chain of happenstance that included the gravest concerns; murder and theft and betrayal, great love...that despite the supposed conformity of country places there might be an oil field worker who kept a trunk of fossil fish or a man with a desperate stutter who dreamed of being a radio announcer, a dwarf with a rivet gun or an old maid on a rooftop with a telescope, spending her finest hours observing the harmonics of the planetary dance." (these characters sometimes only occur once, but they are very present in the world Jiles creates.)
"There is no past; it is always an accordioned present consisting of compound interest accruing every second."
"Pearl, dear," he said. "Sometimes I don't know where I am." Mrs. Joplin stroked his back. "It's all right James," she said. "Wherever you are, that's the world." (Mrs. Joplin was a favorite character, she makes only a few appearances, but she has an impact. Her husband James is losing himself to dementia, but they, too, get on with things.)
Historical fiction. 2007. Print length: 350 pages.