Matt Phelan’s The Storm in the Barn is showing up on a number of “year’s best” lists, but my feelings on its magical plot machinations match those expressed by Jessica Bruder in the New York Times Book Review:
Jack finds himself face to face with the Storm King, an evil spirit who withheld the rain to win power. . . . Jack finally wins a climactic battle on top of a windmill, and it starts to rain. He’s saved everyone. Unless you go with a possibility suggested earlier in the book: Jack has “dust dementia” and has imagined the whole thing. Either way, the fight doesn’t feel all that redemptive.Both this book and David Small’s Stitches allude to classic works of Victorian children’s literature, and that’s another way that the latter seems much stronger to me.
In The Storm in the Barn, Jack’s sister reads descriptions of a desert from L. Frank Baum’s Ozma of Oz. As I noted earlier, Phelan found those passages through Wikipedia, and his quotes are anachronistic—the kids’ mother couldn’t find the phrase “Deadly Desert” in that book because it didn’t appear till a later one. That’s just a symptom of how that literary allusion feels nailed on rather than organic to the story.
In contrast, David Small’s use of Alice in Wonderland in Stitches has clearly grown from his own childhood love of that book. Allusions are integrated throughout the story. First he shows himself as a young boy playing as Alice, getting to escape “to a land of talking animals, singing flowers and dancing teapots.”
Later, Alice’s nightmarish shrinking and growing informs one of the adolescent David’s recurring nightmares (shown through stat panels) as he struggles to escape from a confining house.
Finally, the White Rabbit comes on the scene as a therapist who provides the book’s breakthrough—without, of course, ever losing track of the time. It turns out David was in the nonsense world all along. Unlike The Storm in the Barn, Small’s Stitches is about sorting out the real nightmares from the fantastic ones, not mixing them up.