Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Scent of Rain and Lightening by Nancy Pickard

I guess I should disclose right off the top that I know Nancy Pickard.  I’ve known her online for a number of years and met her, live-and-in-person, once.  She’s a delightful person and if she ever comes to a bookstore near you, you should go talk to her.  

It feels like we’ve been waiting forever for her new novel, The Scent of Rain and Lightening, to come out.  Her last novel, The Virgin of Small Plains, was set in Kansas and was terrific. She was upfront that this new novel would also be set in Kansas, her home state.

The women in one of my reading groups kept asking me, last year, if I’d seen anything about when her new novel would be coming out.  I got so tired of them asking that I took a year’s sabbatical from the group to get away from the questions. 

OK, I’m kidding about the reason for the sabbatical. But not about them asking.

Finally, this month it was released and … I discovered that my little local independent bookstore didn’t yet have it.  Oh sure, I could have headed over to Barnes and Noble and bought it but I like to support my independent bookstore and they said they could order it and get it in within a couple of days so I agreed to wait.

In the intervening days, it stormed here.  I mean it really stormed.  One of those whopper electrical storms that lights up the sky like a war zone with thunder that shakes you out of bed and enough water to wash away any unprotected, too dry, top soil.  Two local buildings suffered fire damage from being hit by lightening.  It was perfect.  It was the perfect setup for this novel.  I finally picked it up a couple of weekends ago and spent the rainy afternoon reading it straight through.

Set in the middle of Kansas, on a ranch and in the nearby small town, weather permeates the novel.   I’m not from Kansas but any Midwesterner knows what Midwestern heat means: 

It was four-thirty and hotter than ever, although there was a forecast of rain for tomorrow. It was so hot in the truck that Hugh-Jay drove with his work gloves on the steering wheel to keep from burning his hands. It was too hot for the air conditioning to kick in before they reached town, so he had the windows rolled down while the AC worked its way up to tepid.

Oh yeah, I can relate to that kind of heat.  And every Midwesterner can smell the rain coming.   There’s nothing better than watching a storm roll in (as long as there are no tornadoes with it).  One of my favorite moments in the novel takes place at the ranch house when a storm is coming and little Jody is terrified of it.  Her uncle Clay tells her he’ll take care of it, strides out of the house and shoots a gun at it.

“I killed it, “ he said with dead seriousness, looking into Jody’s eyes.

She hiccuped one more time.  “Really?”

“Really.  Watch, if you want to see it go away.”

As if he took the result for granted, Chase walked back into the kitchen.

Within half an hour the storm blew southeast, away from them.

A little while later the sky over the ranch was a perfect cloudless blue.

“How did you know?” his mother asked him later.

“I called the weather service.”

It’s a great moment.  I liked Uncle Clay although I also thought he was a pretty good suspect for murdering little Jody’s parents.  I also suspected Uncle Bobby and Jody’s Grandpa and a whole bunch of other characters.  Yes, this is a novel about a murder.  Someone went to jail for it but, throughout the novel, questions abound. The story opens in the present time, when Jody is grown up and learns that the Governor is commuting the sentence of the man convicted of murdering her father.  Then the novel goes back in time twenty years, to the mid-1980’s, to tell the story of what happened the night of the murder. At least what happened as far as anyone knew.  Jody’s mother disappeared on the same night and has not been seen since; she is also assumed dead. Is she dead?  Was she murdered?  Or did she have something to do with the murder?   I won’t tell you but I will tell you that it involved a storm.   A Big Storm. 

The novel also deals with how the town dealt with the repercussions from the event in the intervening years.  And the reader, knowing that the murder sentence was commuted, is looking for clues as to whether the wrong man was convicted and, if so, who really did it.

Back when I was in Law School I took a seminar called Law and Literature in which we read fiction that contained legal issues and discussed them.  This would be a good novel for that seminar.  The man who is convicted of the murder of Jody’s father is not a good person. As one of the townspeople tells the grownup Jody,  he didn’t think that Billy Crosby committed the murder but “Billy Crosby was an absolute right man to put in prison.”   Under the rules of evidence, being a bad person and committing prior bad acts isn’t (or shouldn’t be) evidence that you committed this bad act.  Evidence of prior bad acts is generally not admissible to show that a person acted similarly in the case before the court but it may be admissible to show motive, plan, intent, lack of mistake or, in federal court, to impeach a witness's credibility.  In this case, everyone knew that Billy Crosby was bad news.  Everyone assumed that he did it.  The family assumed that he did it.  But did he really do it?  And should he have gone to jail just because he was a bad man who might not have done this crime?

I won’t give away the end.  I will say that I enjoyed this book.  I read it straight through in one afternoon.  I didn’t think the ending was predictable.  The only thing I might have wished different was not having a more than 100 page leap back into the past: that frustrated me a little bit.  I kept wanting to return to the present and maybe find out the past in little dribbles rather than having it handed to me on one large platter.  But that’s a minor quibble.   I can’t wait for the next novel set in Kansas.  It almost makes me want to visit the state.   Almost.