Monday, May 17, 2010
Storm in the Barn, written and illustrated by Matt Phelan. Candlewick, Random House, 2009. $29.00 ages
"Your daughter's condition - which, by the by, our colleagues at the Red Cross headquarters in Wichita are now calling dust pneumonia - ...has not improved, Mrs. Clark. In fact -
You might want to keep an eye on that one, Tom. I've begun to notice a new trend, a new condition. All this dust, it gets to some people on a different level.
'I'm thinking of calling it dust dementia.'"
There is foreshadowing in the opening graphic cells...a Kansas family loads the car and leaves their farm to the dust. As they travel along a nearby road, they are faced by an unsettling spectre. When they stop it has disappeared. Remember this!
During the Great Depression farm families did not just lose their farms and belongings, they lost all hope for the future. Jack's family is comprised of troubled, disheartened parents, two sisters and himself. There is not much for Jack to help his father with on the farm; so, he is given the task of looking our for his sisters. Dorothy is often overcome with coughing fits, loves the Wizard of Oz story and spends most days in bed. Jack reads to them both when Dorothy cannot read for herself. He is bullied at school, survives a race with a dust storm and worries that he cannot help around the farm. When he sees some kind of aura shining from an abandoned nearby barn, he is wonderstruck, but is concerned that he, too, might have dust dementia.
The community is having great difficulty dealing with the absence of rain, the superstitions that rear their ugly heads, the hopelessness of their situation. Jack listens to the conversation in the general store, and hears stories told of heroes of old. On his way home, he determines to investigate the strange happenings he thinks he has seen in the barn. His curiosity leads to an amazing discovery, help for everyone is at hand.
There is so much to peruse and ponder in this mostly wordless graphic novel. There are short periods of dialogue to help readers understand each aspect, but the illustrations provide the story in spare lines and mixed-media. They convey the feelings of helplessness and desperation felt by those living in the Dust Bowl.
In an author's note that follows his story Matt Phelan tells his readers that it was a book of photographs about the Dust Bowl that first drew him to the story of the people who survived and continued to fear a repitition of this colossal event in their lives. He saw desperation in those faces, but also determination and they stayed with him for many years as the story began to take shape for him.
This well deserved winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction is an amazing mix of fantasy, graphica, historical fiction and great storytelling. It is so worth the time you will spend poring over it!