On the great prairie lands of the United States, in the late 1880s, Laurel McBryde's life with her widowed father is exactly what she wishes it to be. She reads, makes photographs and is treated as an equal by her father. But when he dies on her twenty-first birthday, leaving her in the hands of her mother's family, Laurel's life changes radically. She is expected to marry, and to that end the Hartmoors press her to give up her most unfeminine behavior, her radical ideas and her belief that she is the equal to any man. Only one man in Chisholm appreciates Laurel for what she is, and he is not only married and of a different class, but there is a shadow over his past that threatens even their friendship.
Boy, can Michelle Black write! Her "Lightning in a Drought Year" is a tremendously moving, compelling novel about life in gilded-age Kansas. The plot is simple; it's a coming-of-age story involving the best sort of romantic heroine, a woman who has learned to think for herself, and it requires her to butt heads with those who uphold the status quo. But while her presence changes them, as it will in all good novels of the type, they change her as well, and this is tremendously refreshing because it acknowledges that any person at any age, no matter how enlightened they may seem, can have room for change and growth in their lives. Watching Laurel come to care for a family which at first seems horrid and stifling is one of the joys of this book. The story is told with a less-is-more restraint that compels readers to do a lot of the work for themselves, to bring their own feelings and experiences to the act of reading, which I find the most satisfying sort of storytelling.
One of Black's major strengths is characterization. She doesn't show her hand too quickly, but is careful to remain in Laurel's point of view, allowing the reader to see and understand only what Laurel does. Moments of extreme discomfort are broken by touches of unexpected kindness and humor, which are in turn squashed by rigid attitudes and expectations. It's an effort to get to know the Hartmoors, but the effort pays off. By the end I might not have agreed with any of their attitudes, but I felt a true affection for them. They are sublimely human and prone to all the human weaknesses as well as strengths. They do things for selfish reasons, but when a situation calls for selflessness and honesty, they come through, sometimes grudgingly, sometimes with infectious good humor. By comparison, Carey Fairchild, Laurel's lover, is not quite as well drawn as the others, but that's not necessarily a drawback. He's a nice change from the overwhelmingly masculine, square-jawed, often obtuse but always in control romantic hero who has become an awful cliché in romantic fiction. Carey is fallible, weak and strong by turns, loving, selfish, thoughtful and thoughtless, and if we don't see as far into him as we do the Hartmoor family members it is perhaps because Black is so consistent in her point of view that we perceive him through Laurel-tinted glasses which see the faults, but make them look smaller. As for Laurel, she's refreshingly girl-next-door. I was with her the whole way; never once did Black lose me with inappropriately gushy descriptions of her beauty, her brilliance or her spunk.
Michelle Black is a treasure; she has a strong, sensible narrative voice, an eye for believable characterization and the ability to make the most out of a simple plot. On the strength of this book, I've ordered the e-book version of her previous title "Never Come Down."