With all the heartbreaking precision of a Walker Evans photograph, Paulette Jiles' second novel, STORMY WEATHER, tells the story of the Stoddard women in the oil fields of East Texas during the Great Depression, their trials and their triumph. As in her deeply moving first novel, ENEMY WOMEN which was set during the Civil War, Jiles' gift for creating vibrant characters, characters we come to care about, is remarkable. And her ability to weave history, fiction, and grounded place develops a tension in the paragraphs that is staggering.
Jeanine Stoddard, something of a tomboy, charged with covering up her drunken womanizing father's misdeeds, and blamed by her sisters and mother for protecting him is the emotional heart of the novel. Her slow to develop romance with widowed rancher Ross Everett, her dogged determination to save the family farm in the face of the dust bowl, and her hopes and dreams pinned on a racehorse named Smoky Joe, is a character of such pluck and promise, such a wide-eyed, innocent embrace of the world around her that she captivates the reader.
The broadened canvas of history, geography, and popular culture, with remarkable writing about oil rigs and
horses, does not detract from or dilute the story - rather, it takes this episodic and cinematic vision and gives it a bed on which all the stories settle. There are many instances in STORMY WEATHER where the movement from public history to personal story is so seamless one recalls Doctorow's RAGTIME. The risk, of course, is that we, modern readers, invited to deconstruct this way, will bring our rich bag of reference points to that Great Depression - classic, cliched, and captured in real voices or pictures, and see whether Jiles adds anything to already crowded territory.
As she did in ENEMY WOMEN with the Civil War, so Jiles in STORMY WEATHER succeeds admirably. The dust storm that catches Jeanine and Ross out on the road is vivid, terrifying, and palpable. Descriptions of small towns, oil fields, the relationships between sisters, and the wreckage of the land in the dust bowl, are startling, clear, and graceful. And when Jeanine's scarf catches in the chain drive of her John Deere in the peach orchard, it catches in our throat as well. As in all great fiction, we come to care, and that investment in characters and their lives, enriches us. Paulette Jiles' Stoddard's, and a rich cast surrounding them, are characters we're better for knowing, better for shaking the dust off images we thought we knew and looking again.