Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Hard Enough When the Sun Shone

Review: Then Comes a Wind by R.J. Stewart

I recall being terrified while reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's account of a prairie blizzard in Little House on the Prairie. I was reluctant to go outside for a few days, until Mom pointed out that a blizzard, even in our own prairie town, was unlikely in the month of August. 

The people of Little House, however, never struck me as appreciably different than the modern folks around me. Not so the "entrymen" of Nebraska in R.J. Stewart's tale. The homesteaders who file their entries on the government land and then build their sod homes on the unbroken grassland have a different quality than I observe in modern life. 

Curiously, it is the "good" folks who have settled the town of Rackett and the grasslands around it who seem otherworldly in their stoicism and acceptance of fate. Their opponents, typified by a disgustingly perverse doctor, or the local rancher who has been accustomed to running cattle on the prairie unopposed by fences or homesteads, are all too familiar to my modern eye.
He lorded his stature over his hired hands, the stronger and more independent of them simply quiet and acquiescent because they needed the work, and the weaker a band of noisy yes-men.

Will Sutton, the entryman farmer who has brought his wife and their two daughters to Nebraska and settled them into a "soddie" on their new land, expects nothing more from life than hard work and chancy weather, yet he has time to muse on the life and death that surround him on the prairie. He makes choices that eventually entail great personal costs for himself, his wife and his daughters, but Will does not complain. In devastating loss both Will and his older daughter Almy perplex my modern expectations; they simply bear down and work harder.

The townspeople of Rackett seem slightly more modern than the entrymen homesteadersat least until they form a court to judge one of their citizens, not with a judge presiding, but with a council whose members are the very definition of "prejudice."

The blizzard that provides the tipping point of the story was a realistic event, a rare occurrence but one which the settlers had seen or heard of before.
Old timers recalled the blizzards that had come before. That one in '73 killed the schoolchildren, but it was in winter. Noyer thinkin' '88. Seventy-three was in spring! Hell, that was clear into April. And it came on like this one here so fast that the children were trapped on their way home from school. Yep, that's it.

If I had encountered Stewart's blizzard at the same age as I did Wilder's, I might not have been so fearful of one, principally because neither Will nor his women are frightened by the storm. Storms are just what happen on the prairie, and the Suttons' approach to life is to cope with what happens. There are darker turns to this story, though, that make it inappropriate for very young readers. 

By turns thrilling, engaging and revealing of the settler's life and somewhat alien mind, Then Comes a Wind is a marvelous debut novel. I look forward to more from Stewart's pen.