Friday, April 30, 2010

The Storm in the Barn

I've long been a supporter of graphic novels and comics as a way to get children (and sometimes adults) to read. As a kid who grew up on Uncle Scrooge and Archie comics, I have no issue with the blending of pictures and words. In fact some stories need to be told in graphic novel form. They need the images to drive the point home. I would say that Matt Phelan's The Storm in the Barn is one of those stories.

The book follows Jack Clark, an 11 year old boy who is growing up during the dust bowl of the thirties. His life is terribly hard and Jack feels like there is nothing he can do. His family's farm is completely exhausted, his sister is dealing with dust pneumonia, and now people are starting to talk about Jack having dust dementia. But he knows what he saw. The light in the neighbors barn and the strange man were real. Jack sets out to solve the mystery and bring back rain to the parched community.

If this sounds like a fantasy, in some ways it is. But this book has so much more than just a fantasy story. This is a historical novel and Phelan does not pull any punches when showing us how tough life was in the dust bowl. Images are muted and colors are faded. Even the people themselves are faded, without smiles or cheer. The town is nearly dead and we see those few surviving people as they scrap for what little they have, all the while under threat of being swindled by hucksters who offer an end to their problems. Jack is tormented by a group of four or five boys who take out their frustrations on his poor body. The dust bowl was a cheerless time and Phelan manages to bring that despair to each page.

The only rays of sunlight for Jack are at home. His sister tells him the Oz stories (recently published at that time) and the family shares some wonderful moments by her bedside. But even those are overshadowed by her persistant coughing and Jack's grim and angry father. As I said, Phelan pulls no punches. The library had this book shelved for young children but I think this would work perfectly at the middle/high school level when learning about the dust bowl. I know that it was one of the best portrayals of that time period that I've ever seen. And it was a hard and hostile time.

Phelan uses his muted palette and spare words beautifully to create an incredibly moving story. Not much needs to be said to see the desperation on Jack's face or the rest of the townspeople. The scenes surrounding a jackrabbit round-up (you don't want to know) will stay with me for many many weeks. All done silently but effectively. It is only once you get to the ending that we can (like the townspeople) start to feel the relief of burden. The ending of the story is a wonderful fantasy that erases some of the sadness of the early part of the book. I won't tell you more, other than that it is incredbly beautiful. And touching. And powerful. But that pretty much sums up the rest of the book as well. A must read for adults and older children. Beautiful.

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