blackbirdonline journalSpring 2017  Vol. 16 No. 1
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Review | I Will Send Rain by Rae Meadows
Henry Holt and Company, 2016

spacer I Will Send Rain (Publisher, year)

Dorothea Lange’s evocative, windswept photographs of Dust Bowl residents haunt our understanding of that bitter era of American history. It’s hard to escape the eyes of those women, clinging to child and broom, as the landscape around them turns up nothing but sand. Rae Meadows, the author of I Will Send Rain, certainly couldn’t let go of them. Lange’s photography was the impetus for Meadows’s fourth novel, a heartbreaking, jubilant, and all-too-human portrait of the people stuck in the middle of those American prairies that seemed to be giving up the ghost throughout the 1930s. In the process, Meadows uncovers a powerful connection between grief and faith―a connection the characters struggle throughout the novel to understand. Meadows takes us to the dark, unsung core of these characters, unafraid to plumb the depths of the human heart.

In Meadows’s account of the book’s development, to her, the stories of the Dust Bowl marked “the erosion of everything: land, bodies, families, faith.” The migrant narrative perennially fascinates us; we are the country of The Grapes of Wrath, after all. But Meadows zeros in on a more complicated vision of staying put, even when the longing to leave remains. She focuses on the cyclicity of picking up, returning, running, settling. The entire book takes place in the town of Mulehead, and because the characters stay in place, the tension ratchets up with every passing day, as the characters fight against the temptation to despair.

I Will Send Rain primarily follows the story of the Bells: Samuel, a devout Christian farmer looking for ways to keep his land green; Annie, his drifting wife, worrying on about a renewed desire to leave and find the freedom she longs for; Birdie, their sixteen-year-old daughter, who finds herself pregnant after the father has already fled to California; and Fred, a mute, dreamy boy with asthma, slowly being eaten alive by the dust in the air.

Meadows writes with sharp observational skill that rings with truth. We, as readers, are voyeurs into the Bells’ lives, their innermost doubts and fears, and Meadows takes us there with effortless ease. The narration flows easily from one Bell to another, allowing us to see the characters through multiple sets of eyes and revealing new facets as the novel goes on. Birdie observes her father with frustration and concern: “[Samuel] used to laugh readily at Fred’s clowning, even sing sometimes in the evening, stomping his foot to keep time  . . . But now any leftover energy went into worry, into thumbing through the tissue-thin pages of his Bible, its cover cracked like the veins of a long-dead leaf.” The Bells’ real fear is that everything will die and crumple in this new, dusty world: family, faith, and even fear sometimes seem like luxuries they can no longer afford.

But Meadows frequently returns to the wrongness of the drought; the Bells and their neighbors do not cave into despair because they are convinced they do not deserve this. The first of the dust storms arrives out of nowhere: “The world had gone dark and haywire. Dear God, Samuel thought, what is this ugliness?” The most beautiful sections of the novel come when hope springs fiercely against this dark landscape, as when Fred rushes to the aid of one of their hens in the middle of a storm: “He looked at the ravaged bird and knew there was only one thing to do. He put his foot on its body, grasped its small quivering head in his hands, and yanked as hard as he could. The neck gave way with a pop. Fred kneeled down and cradled the creature to his chest like a gift.” Cruelty and mercy. These are the truths of this land, feeding off one another.

The characters run into difficulty when they cannot accept both at once. Annie, especially, rails against the unfairness of life―the drought, an unsatisfying marriage, the loss of a baby years ago. As Samuel seeks God’s answers, Annie turns away: “More and more, he saw the drought as a test of faith. More and more, she feared the drought would free this tight coil of restlessness in her, expose her as someone less than steadfast.” Annie cannot fight the longings to move away. In the novel, she grows closer to Jack Lily, the mayor of Mulehead who hails from Chicago, somewhere Annie thinks is much more open and glamorous than her tiny town. Annie feels tight and stifled where she is, and she has much to say about the concealed aspects of herself and the incongruity between how people are and how they appear. She flirts with Jack to open up this new world in the middle of her own: “No one who saw them would have thought anything of it, and yet Annie knew different. What could people see anyway? They couldn’t see the weight of a glance or the impurity of a thought. They were in plain view, but the town might just have easily fallen away.”

What’s so lovely about the book is this interrogation of sight and perception: what is real and what is an illusion? Meadows poses the question in interesting ways. While Annie stumbles through her search for belonging and purpose, Samuel takes the opposite road, growing closer to his faith. A series of vivid nightmares about a great deluge of rain keeps him restless through most nights, until he thinks he has stumbled upon the meaning of the visions: God is telling him to build an ark. Annie recoils from his conviction, embarrassed by what the neighbors will think, but Samuel’s humble determination to see it through, with the help of his son, is one of the novel’s clearest convergences of reality with the illusory or strange.

Meadows tackles issues of faith with boldness. Her characters often turn to musings on religion and spirituality, and what’s refreshing about their journeys is the unblinking, steady gaze that they’re allowed to direct at God. Meadows doesn’t allow the narrative to squirrel away from honest questions or even honest faith (Samuel’s unwavering devotion to God is refreshing against the near-total backdrop of politely agnostic books, where the divine is either entirely absent or understood to be best kicked under the rug). In Meadows’s work, the search for meaning in spiritual matters is simply allowed to be part of the landscape, as important to the characters’ search for identity as their draw to other relationships.

The biggest constant of Meadows’s writing is a fervor for leaving no stone unturned, for airing out the cobwebbed corners of humanity that we don’t always see explored. Her first novel, Calling Out, follows a young woman dipping a toe into the world of escort services, a purely personal journey of destruction. In No One Tells Everything, we see the story of a young woman connecting with an accused murderer, seeing her story within his and trying to find the line that separates them from one another. Mercy Train is The Hours-esque, a look at motherhood and childhood across multiple generations. Meadows’s greatest strength across her oeuvre is her ability to dramatize with empathy and grace the pain of her characters struggling with depression, those who seem to be drowning with a sense of purposelessness.

There’s a kind of radical passivity that overtakes Meadows’s characters, a sense that they are free to act however they want if it moves them closer to feeling alive again. But their movements are more sleepwalking than anything. In her novels, you’re waiting to see what kicks them out of the trance. If the trance never dissipates, you wonder where the exit passed them by. Meadows is willing to follow every off-ramp, every mud-drenched gravel road, and every horizon with her characters to discover exactly where they’re trying to go, and it makes for a fresh kind of narrative—more texture than plot.

In I Will Send Rain, Meadows finds something to love in every character; the narration hops easily from Bell to Bell, to the pastor of the local church, to the mayor’s sidekick, to an alcoholic on the fringes of the community. Mulehead is the locus that keeps the novel tethered, but there are times when the freewheeling focus of the narration places undue attention on ancillary characters whose arcs never quite settle.

It’s hard to know what to make of the digressions other than that Meadows knows how to write every character under the sun, and it’s hard to fault her for wanting to spend some time with characters who are only meant to be glimpsed for a moment before she pans away. It creates a haunting tableau effect, and so these characters do linger despite their small amount of screen time. I Will Send Rain is filled with these images: crows clinging to barbed wire; “boats bobbing on dark water”; a nest of rabbits that sounds “like babies crying”; characters clinging to one another, “linked like a chain of paper dolls against the blazing sky, hand in hand stretched out along the rise.” Meadows has created a story as unforgettable as Lange’s photographs, as lasting, as real.   end

Rae Meadows is the author of four novels: I Will Send Rain (Henry Holt and Co., 2016), Mercy Train (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012), No One Tells Everything (MacAdam / Cage, 2008), and Calling Out (Lawson Library, 2007). Her stories have appeared in Contexts, Mississippi Review, More Magazine, and elsewhere.

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