08 October 2009

Not Directly about the Dust Bowl?

My favorite part in Out of the Dust, Karen Hesse’s Newbery-winning novel in verse about the Dust Bowl, is ****SPOILERS**** when the teen-aged heroine, Billie Jo, corners the embodiment of the Rain in an old barn and fights him into opening his carpet bag.

By releasing the thunder and lightning in that bag, Billie Jo forces the Rain back into his natural state and restores the landscape around her family farm. Although the book doesn’t say so explicitly, I think the return of the rain also means that Billie Jo’s sister won’t die of that lung disease.

Okay, that’s not what happens in Out of the Dust. It’s what happens in The Storm in the Barn, the new graphic novel by Matt Phelan.

In Out of the Dust, Billie Jo’s mother burns to death, the child she’s carrying also dies, Billie Jo’s own hands are so burned that she can no longer play the piano, and she runs away from home, only to turn back in order to end the book with the requisite sense of hope. (I told you there would be SPOILERS.)

In fact, if Hesse or anyone else had offered a literary novel about the Dust Bowl whose plot turned on fighting an embodiment of the Rain on top of a windmill, I suspect most reviewers would deem that story not serious enough for its setting and topic. Certainly critics have questioned whether children’s fantasy was an appropriate medium for addressing the Holocaust or other periods of great human suffering.

The Storm in the Barn’s plot doesn’t even include what I recall Ellen Howard calling “price of fantasy”: young Jack doesn’t have to make any trade-offs for how he benefits from magic. (Some might say that he and his family have already paid a price, however, and deserve a break.)

That fantastic, wish-fulfilling plot hasn’t stopped The Storm in the Barn from garnering rapturous reviews. Here’s a sampling of positive notices from Shelf Elf, A Fuse #8 Production, and Comics Should Be Good! And on a page-by-page basis it’s very affecting.

To be sure, The Storm in the Barn was created for somewhat younger readers than Out of the Dust. It’s about an eleven-year-old boy (action!) instead of a fourteen-year-old girl (feelings!). In the author’s note Phelan states, “I wanted this book to be set in the Dust Bowl but not a story directly about the Dust Bowl.”

I’m just asking, would that possible for a serious prose novel? Could someone writing for young people today create a novel set during, say, plantation slavery, but insist that it’s not directly about plantation slavery, offer a plot that ends the suffering of that system through supernatural means, and still gain reviewers’ praise?

TOMORROW: Fantasy and the comics form.


Raius said...

I remember reading Hesse's work as a 7th grader. It was startlingly honest for children's books, which was sort of depressing at the time.

J. L. Bell said...

Yeah, Out of the Dust has gotten a reputation as about the most depressing book in the modern curriculum. As a verse novel, it’s short and literary, which makes it attractive for classroom teaching. And as historical fiction it’s serious in a way that other genres aren’t perceived to be.