If you've learned about the early 20th century in school, you probably learned about the two World Wars, the stock market crash of '29, the Great Depression, and the New Deal. And maybe along the way (in either history or English - Out of the Dust, maybe, or The Grapes of Wrath), you learned a bit about the Dust Bowl. Whether you have or not, today's selection - a brand-new graphic novel coming out in early September - will give you a very
clear dusty introduction to that time period. It's not, however, a work of nonfiction - not only is it fiction, it's pretty much a tall tale.
The story is set in Dust Bowl Kansas. Our main character is the aptly named Jack Clark, age 11, a young boy who is worried about his sister Dorothy, who is suffering from dust-related pneumonia, and who is relegated to chasing after his baby sister Mabel, who sometimes goes where she ought not to go.
Why did I say that Jack Clark was aptly named? Well . . . let's just say it has something to do with the nature of this particular story, which is party tall tale/fairy tale (a la "Jack and the Beanstalk" or "Jack the Giant-Killer", or, well, any of the so-called "Jack tales", American tall tales based in the Southern Appalachians). It's so common for boys in those sorts of tales to be named "Jack", in fact, that in Ian Beck's book, The Secret History of Tom Trueheart, the main character (Tom) has six older brothers, all of whom are heroes, and all of whom are named "Jack." But I digress. And "Clark" has its root in the same word as "Clerk", which originally comes from the idea of a religious scholar once known as a cleric. A cleric is generally a good guy; a clerk is generally someone we think of who serves a useful purpose. Jack Clark is all of these things – plain and simple, a hero, a good guy, and a boy who serves an extremely useful purpose, as it turns out. And he does it by employing the sort of bravery and cleverness that his namesake in the Giant-Killer and Beanstalk stories did.
In this story, Jack Clark discovers a mysterious being hiding out in the barn abandoned by neighbors who could no longer stand to live in the dust and the drought. Over time, he manages to figure out exactly who that being is. Jack, used to being bullied and overlooked, makes a decision to act in hopes that he will help not only his sister, but his town, to recover from the effects of the drought.
The artwork in the book is stunning. You can get a sense of some of it from this book trailer, created by Matt Phelan and available on YouTube:
The book's most memorable spread is – for me – found at the bottom right corner of page 128, and is at the center of a particularly gripping (and violent) episode in the book, when Jack observes his father and other men (plus older boys) engaged in a jackrabbit drive. The author's note at the end of the book makes clear that the particular event depicted actually occurred during the Dust Bowl, and is one of the events that most haunted survivors of that time on the plains.
The written portion of this graphic novel is actually quite small, percentage-wise, with words only as needed to convey the story and fill out the context for the pictures. The menacing form in the barn is well-done indeed, conveying secrets and power more than creepiness, although there's decidedly several frissons to be had when in the presence (visual or implied) of the being in question. Dorothy Clark, Jack's sister, is a compelling character; you can tell that she and Jack are quite fond of one another, and Dorothy spends her time reading (when she's not sleeping or coughing, that is) about another Dorothy in a different Kansas, who travels not only to Oz but also to the desert near the Land of Ev.
Another character of whom I'm particularly fond is Ernie, the kindhearted man who runs the general store. Not only does he try to protect Jack from the older boys who bully him, but he also tells Jack tall tales, all of them involving a hero named Jack. And he's not just kind to Jack's face; he also harbors great expectations for Jack, believing that one day Jack will do something truly heroic.
I had the chance to interview Matt Phelan at my own blog, and I can say for certain that his background as a theatre and film major contributes to the way he conveys the story in The Storm in the Barn, which has a cinematic feel to it. His pacing is spot-on as well.
So, to sum up: Interested in graphic novels? Or history? Or tall tales? This is the book for you. On sale on (or before) September 8, 2009.
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