Falling to Earth, by Kate Southwood

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Falling to Earth, Kate Southwood

I am fascinated by natural catastrophe movies. So why not a catastrophe book? Blogger and author Julie Christine (chalkthesun.org) reviewed this book and I was inspired to read it.

This is Kate Southwood’s first novel. She found her inspiration in the Tri-State tornado, part of a family of tornadoes that wreaked havoc in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana on March 18, 1925. In fact, that is the starting date of this book and the action is set in the fictitious town of Marah. The storm is approaching town and Paul Graves sees it coming as he stands outside his lumberyard in downtown Marah. There is little time to go anywhere else, so he clings to a telegraph pole and keeps his body low to the ground. Miraculously, not only does he manage to hang on but he also escapes injury from flying objects. This is not the first miracle of the day. While many die or are injured in the storm, others lose all their worldly goods. Paul’s family, on the other hand, escapes unscathed. All family members, the house, the business… nothing is lost.

Paul is grateful for his good fortune but many of his friends were grievously affected. He actively participates in recovering children’s bodies from the collapsed school (his children escaped the same fate because they were home sick that day). He also takes part in clean up efforts. His porch is used to pile up recovered bodies before they can be buried, and he and his family shelter some of their homeless neighbours. The whole family is very careful not to flaunt their luck in front of others; they are acutely conscious of their exceptional situation.

In spite of their helpfulness to others, tongues start wagging. They are somehow blamed for their luck. Paul is even accused of profiting from others’ misfortunes. His business is making money from selling wood for coffins as well as materials for the town reconstruction. The family is ostracised and townspeople start ordering wood from the neighbouring town.

Beyond the retelling of the events and their aftermath, Southwood explores the depth of human spirit and resilience. But she also looks at what envy and resentment can lead to and the deeply unsettling effects it can have on its victims. Paul’s wife, Mae, can hardly come out of the house any more, she cannot face their neighbors and slowly sinks into what looks like a deep depression, she gets into “her moods”, Southwood says. This is complicated by some degree of obsessive-compulsive disorder she may have inherited from her mother. Her social isolation may be another contributing factor: she is an orphan (both her parents have passed), her best friend died in the storm, and they are treated increasingly poorly by their neighbours. The children also suffer greatly and they are even more ill-equipped than their mother to voice their feelings and deal with them. The family turns inward but its members seem to become strangers to each other. What will it take to turn things around?

This book does not have a fairy tale ending, but it does hint at the fact that there may still be a glimmer of hope even in very dark situations.

My fascination with natural catastrophes has as much to do with admiring how the human spirit can overcome difficulties as with the awe-inspiring power of nature. This book focuses on the former in a masterful way. The pace is slow but so are the meanders that the minds of the main characters go through as they struggle to make sense of experience. This slow journey from perception and emotion, to comprehension, and to full understanding is depicted in delicate strokes that show all the nuances and contradictions of the human mind and heart.

And I learned a word! I always thought (well, maybe not always since I have not always spoken English) of things diagonally across each other as “kitty corner”. Southwood uses “catty corner”. In fact, in can also be “catercorner”. Oh my, the complexity of the English language…

References

Southwood, Kate. Falling to Earth. Europa Editions, New York, NY, 2013.

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