Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Stormy Weather

A few years ago I read Enemy Women, the best selling novel by Paulette Jiles.  Set in Missouri during the Civil War, it was fascinating to see my states' history finally novelized in a best seller.  I remember being interested in the story but not particularly loving Jiles' writing style.  But I can't remember why.

I recently finished her latest novel, Stormy Weather, and again I was fascinated by the story but less than enamored with her style.  It isn't that I dislike it, but I'm not wild about it.  I find it unusual.

She writes in the third person, which I like better than the first person most of the time.  But, although she incorporates the points of view of many of her characters, she is detached from them.   What is strange is that she somehow manages to keep the reader turning the pages while at the same time glossing over what would normally be the most exciting parts of the story.

For example, one of the key plot points in Stormy Weather involves a young girl named Bea who falls down a well.  For most novelists this would be a big emotional scene.  Not for Jiles. 

The scene is told from the point of view of Bea, who falls into the well while her cat Prince Albert remains above:

The water was very cold.  She heard Prince Albert making strange noises far above at the edge of the well. Bea could feel a distant sort of panic overtaking her but she seemed to look on her overwhelming fear of being buried alive at the bottom of the well from a faraway place.  The well cover was twisted; after a few moments a board fell from it and came turning over and over down the well shaft and struck her foot, but her foot seemed to be connected to some other body.  She was drifting in deep December water.  She was in the terrible underground.  She was in another world, which was deadly, and above her was the old house and the warm stove and Albert.

And that's it.  That's all the description we get of the experience.  She "seemed to look" at the experience from a distance.  We are not told her actual thoughts, Jiles describes them from afar.

Of course when I first read it I assumed she was going to die in the well and the emotion would come when her sisters discover her.  But when they finally discover her in the well, she is alive and they hear her call "Mother, mother, mother"  ... and then the story immediately shifts to this:

They drove Bea to the hospital in Mineral Wells. It seemed to take years to drive the twisted road.  Jeanine drove. Mayme and her mother sat holding Bea, laid on the bed of the truck on as many quilts and pillows as they could rip off the beds, her left leg bent at an acute angle,  as if there were a new joint in the middle of her shin.  Jeanine's hands and legs and coat were covered with mud and torn by the rope they had lowered into the well.  Mayme had run to the Crowsers', but by the time Abel got there Elizabeth and Jeanine had rigged the rope to the cedar tree and Jeanine had gone down into the well.  She didn't know if she had torn or broken Bea's legs any worse getting her out.  Bea's face was covered in blood so that it looked as if someone had thrown red paint in her face.  Her skin was pale blue and splattered with random blood splashes.

Again, that's it.  That's all. The entire rescue buried in the middle of a paragraph.

Even though this style didn't grab me it didn't completely bother me.  It occurred to me that it might be appropriate to the times in which this story was set:  Texas during the Great Depression.  A time when people were just trying to get by and hardship was a daily occurrence. 

They were adrift. So were millions of others and no one could figure out why the economy had ceased to function, not even the banker J.P. Morgan. He said as much on the radio.

But although the style might have been appropriate it kept me from becoming emotionally attached to any of the characters, even Jeanine who is the main focus of this story.  I'm not sorry that I read the novel.  It gave me view of oil drilling and dust storms and poverty arising from a broken economy that I'm glad I now have.   From an informational point of view, it was useful.  But it fell short for me as a novel with an emotional heart.