15 January 2010

The Plot in The Storm in the Barn

Though I recognize the historical research that Matt Phelan put into The Storm in the Barn, I don’t see it as a historical novel because ultimately it turns not on what happened or could have happened in the past, but on something that physically could not have happened. So what do I think of it as a fantasy?

As a fantasy narrative, I think The Storm in the Barn offers a powerful but ultimately distorted picture of a historical period (anachronistic Oz quotation aside). But I don’t think its plot holds together in fantastic terms. And that’s a big reason why for me the supernatural dimension doesn’t make up for the story’s break away from history.

First, the villain is flat, even by the standards of abstract personifications. I never got a clear idea about why the storm is refusing to rain. He wants to preserve himself from dissolution, yet he’s spending his extra days of existence hiding out in a deserted barn. Maybe the storm’s got a really good book he wants to finish or something, but in this case personifying the Dust Bowl drought as a character doesn’t illuminate the historic event or add depth to the story.

More important, I don’t see how Jack’s triumph over the storm resolves his problem as the book’s first half lays it out. Those pages show us older boys teasing Jack, the community excluding him from events like the rabbit-clubbing festival (which turns out to be less fun than it sounds), and his father not letting him help fix farm machinery. His only friends are his sisters and a chatty drugstore owner.

That character, as I recall, ties Jack’s problems to the drought: because there are no crops growing, Jack has no chance to do farmwork that proves his competence, and he’s therefore stuck in the role of a little kid.

[Extra credit question for 9th-grade social studies: As an allegory, how does this relate to the New Deal’s emphasis on making jobs for unemployed Americans through the NRA, CCC, and other programs?]

By defeating the storm in the barn, the book shows us, Jack not only brings rain; he also proves his value. But his problem was a social one—how other people perceived him. And the story offers no reason for people to perceive Jack differently after the rain returns. No one knows about his fight with the storm. Jack’s little sister is the only other local who saw the storm, and she already looks up to him. There’s no clue that any adult would even believe in a personified storm, and thus in Jack’s heroism.

Compare this resolution to, say, Rowan of Rin, by Emily Rodda. That fantasy also involves a community endangered by a drought, an environmental problem embodied in the fantastic form of a cranky dragon.

A small group undertakes a quest to fix the problem, and circumstances force them to take along a timid boy whom people don’t think much of. Over the course of the adventure, however, young Rowan surprises himself and his companions by revealing a spine of steel. Ultimately he alone fixes the problem and ends the drought. And everyone sees what Rowan does.

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