She's shaken the boughs of her family tree (Cousins), won the Canadian Governor General Award for poetry (Celestial Navigation) and chronicled the brutality of the Civil War in the Missouri Ozarks (Enemy Women). Now Paulette Jiles turns her discerning eye and poet's ear for language to the rough-and-tumble early days of the West Texas oil fields, where Jeanine Stoddard grows up with her two sisters, Mayme and Bea, and her parents, Elizabeth and Jack.

Jeanine is a tomboy, and her reckless father's favorite, accompanying him to horse races and poker games. When he dies after an accident on the oil rig, the family returns to Elizabeth's birthplace, taking charge of the family farm just as the Depression hits. The four women struggle to make ends meet and keep the farm and the racehorse, Smokey Joe, that was Jack's only legacy. Each sister reacts to the crisis in a different way. Resourceful Jeanine pores over farming manuals from Texas A&M; Mayme takes a job in the oil field office; and preteen Bea loses herself in her writing. Meanwhile, Elizabeth puts her hopes (and the last of the family's savings) into speculating on an oil-drilling outfit that might never see a return. But the period touches, not the plot, lend this novel its charm. Jiles includes carefully chosen background details—Model Ts, saddle shoes, number three washtubs, Disney's Snow White, Movietone news shorts and the songs that play on the family's console radio—giving the reader a real sense of time and place that makes Stormy Weather seem more like a novel written in the 1930s than a historical novel about the 1930s.

Jiles chronicles the Stoddards' struggles in an understated prose style. Horrific events (drought, dust storms and hailstorms; Jeanine's near-strangling when her scarf is caught in farm machinery) are described vividly, but also with a sense of removal, echoing the characters' stoicism in the face of hardship: something expected, coped with and moved on from. Stormy Weather is a remarkable look into America's past, full of characters you will both admire and remember.

 

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