Written and illustrated by Matt Phelan
Candlewick Press, 2009
$24.99, ages 9-12, 208 pages
Phelan uses the graphic novel format to great effect in this mythical story about a boy who saves his family's farm from ruin by defeating an elemental villain during the 1930s Dust Bowl.
Set in Kansas in 1937 near the end of the disaster, the story of 11-year-old Jack Clark and his family's struggle to survive the dust and drought is told through spare dialogue and sweeping sequences of action that capture the haunting mood of the time.
As the story opens, Jack's neighbors are fleeing from their Kansas farm as clouds of dust roll into town. Their sedan has just taken off through a brown haze, when a figure in a blue cape suddenly appears in the headlights. The father hits the breaks, only to find no one there, and brushes it off as nothing.
Then the story jumps to the next day. Jack has just been slugged by bullies in the center of town, when another dark cloud falls over them. The bullies take cover in the general store, but Jack, wanting to get far away from them, races down the road to his neighbor's abandoned barn, only to find the door jammed. With the dust storm at his heels, he flees to his house, barely getting inside before the cloud can envelop him.
The doctor is there with his parents, checking on his older sister Dorothy, who is coughing in the next room from dust-induced pneumonia. They are perplexed why Jack didn't take shelter sooner in the store and the doctor assumes Jack was intentionally trying to run into the storm. As Jack goes to Dorothy's bedside, he overhears the doctor suggest he has "dust dementia."
That night, Jack overhears his parents talking about packing up and leaving their farm, and finds himself staring out of his window into the darkness. Suddenly a blinding light flashes from inside his neighbor's barn, and Jack rubs his eyes in disbelief, wondering if the doctor is right and he is losing his mind.
Each day, Jack finds himself increasingly preoccupied by the barn.
First he finds his baby sister, twirling outside the barn with an umbrella, singing about rain she's never seen, and later, he manages to yank loose the barn's door. Inside, he steps into a puddle and thinks he smells rain. Then in the night, another burst of light lures him back to the barn and he spots a bag rumbling in the rafters and a spooky visage drenched in water.
The face belongs to a greedy storm king, bent on depriving the land of rain until everyone is so desperate for water that they bow to him as a god. Already, the townsfolk have resorted to nailing snakes to fence posts, a superstitious offering to invite rain, though they have no idea this phantom exists.
The Storm King senses that Jack is a timid boy and, when confronted, taunts him about being useless, while Jack -- desperate to feel valuable on the farm and to hold his ground with bullies -- grows increasingly angry and begins to believe there's a way to make the phantom release the rain.
First Dorothy, who spends her days reading L. Frank Baum's Oz series, unknowingly helps Jack to see the villain for who he is. While at her bedside, Jack asks Dorothy why the wizard left Kansas for Oz, and she guesses that he wanted to become special and powerful. Then the owner of the general store spins a tale about another Jack who outsmarts the king of wind by squeezing milk from stone and goes on to defeat him with his own weapon.
The next day Jack passes a huckster selling a contraption he claims will produce thunder, then in turn unleash rain, and Jack begins to understand what the mysterious bag in the barn could hold.
Rain, of course, was not a cure-all for the real Dust Bowl. As we know, the disaster was rooted in unsound farming practices and drought only exacerbated it. But as Phelan states in an author's note at the end of the book, his desire was not to simply replay history, but to reimagine it from a children's perspective and key into their love of folklore, as well as their fascination with the Wizard of Oz movie, which debuted two years after this story occurs.
And indeed, he does just that -- and along the way, demonstrates the literary power of the graphic novel.
It is said that silence speaks louder than words, and interestingly it's the panels of wordless images in Phelan's novel, created with charcoal and earthy watercolors, that really pull me in. As I follow one panel to the next, the suspense builds (much like in a silent movie), and I sense how consuming the dust must have been for those who lived it. I can almost feel grit on the page and hear the ghostly wail of the wind as it leaps from frame to frame.
There is one particularly dark moment in the book, when the farmers, crazed by the drought, round up and kill rabbits that are eating what is left of their crops -- a panel washed in red conveys the brutality. Phelan also uses a few strong words at the beginning of the story to evoke the farmers' frustration. Yet nothing seems gratuitous; these spare, edgy moments bring to bear the torment endured by farmers and help make Phelan's first graphic novel a powerful glimpse into this haunting time.
To learn more about Phelan, the illustrator of the 2007 Newberry Medal winner, The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, visit http://www.mattphelan.com. View Candlewick's video trailer of the book below!