June 29, 2017
Tornado Weather by Deborah E. Kennedy,
Flatiron Books, 2017
Colliersville, Indiana is desperately in need of a renaissance. The small town at the heart of Deborah Kennedy's debut novel has seen better - albeit not much better - days, and its residents would appreciate some improvements in their lives. Unfortunately, none of them is really sure of the true cause of the town's decline, making their stabs at fixing things generally ineffective; if rebirth comes, it's going to come by chance and at a substantial cost.
Kennedy explores the town resident by resident, devoting a chapter to each member of a broad cast of characters, all of whom are linked together by a web of sticky small-town threads. The most overt of those threads is Daisy Gonzalez, a young girl who goes missing one May day after she gets off the school bus. Few of the residents of Colliersville spend much time worrying about poor Daisy's fate as the spring wears on, but her disappearance is always lurking in the background as a symbol of the town's unease.
The characters have more in common than just Daisy, though. Helman Yoder's large dairy farm is Colliersville's main employer, and when his operation is raided for filling its staff with undocumented immigrant workers, the bust sends shock waves through the town and through the Yoder family, including his medication-addicted wife Birdie and his transgender child Wally/Willa. For some in Colliersville, the Mexican immigrants who worked at the farm and live in the impoverished Bottoms are the reason that things are so bad, although they'd be hard pressed to explain exactly how.
There's also the Seaver clan who live in the Bottoms, too, and are looked down upon by the rest of the town. They make up most of the town's racist "militia" movement, and their mean spiritedness makes life difficult for those around them.
Kennedy hops from house to house and business to business in Colliersville, and she even makes a brief journey to Iraq. Gradually, she uncovers the links between the many characters, their past loves and conflicts, their hopes that have faded, their grudges that have festered. She builds the town's complex history, the interlaced interactions that have made Colliersville into what it is today: an economically downtrodden town whose institutions (the laundromat, the little grocery store, the abandoned amusement park outside of town) have not met well with the demands of the 21st century.
There is hope for redemption here, however. In one particularly moving vignette, a group of women who have been pulled apart by circumstances outside their friendship are drawn back together by some of those same circumstances. In an extraordinary scene of grief and forgiveness, we're given a glimpse of the strength that could hold the town together if only it were allowed to come to the surface.
Few in the town see the Mexicans in the Bottoms as the only source of all the town's problems. They're much more likely to ignore the exploited foreign workers than to insist that they be forced to leave. Instead, the residents seem to see the town's decline as a simple fact of life, an inevitable consequence of the way the world is.
Kennedy finds the roots of America's current agitation in Colliersville, however. The town's residents are resistant to and afraid of change, and their complacency ensures that the town's downward slide isn't going to end any time soon. Ultimately, the author assures us that there is hope that things will get better, but it's going to be a painful process. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Deborah E. Kennedy, a Fort Wayne native, was editor of whatzup from April 2009 through July 2011. She now resides in Forest Grove, Oregon, where she continues to write for whatzup and others.