A tornado destroys a Midwestern town, and one family is left unscathed, only to find their troubles just beginning.
It’s a March afternoon, 1925, in the small town of Marah, Ill., too early for tornado season. So, when a giant twister sweeps across the area without warning, it takes a terrible toll of death and destruction. Most families lose at least one member and/or their homes. But the wife, mother and three children of Paul Graves, owner of the local lumberyard, take shelter in his providently built (and still rare in Marah) storm cellar, and Paul himself miraculously survives the storm, as do his business and employees. At first, Paul, wife Ma and mother Lavinia are part of the community rescue and salvage efforts, as well as tireless helpers during the grim aftermath: bodies are laid out on the front porch of their still-intact house, and the lumberyard builds scores of coffins. Despite the fact that the Graves family is humble, unassuming and the opposite of smug, it gradually becomes apparent that everyone else in town resents their good fortune. Even as the town is rebuilding, the Graves children are taunted in school, and Lavinia and Mae are shunned. Mae’s mental health begins to waver. She doesn’t understand why her husband and mother-in-law are resisting her timid suggestion that they move to California to join Paul’s former partner in Graves Lumber, brother John. When his closest friend warns Paul that the townsfolk will boycott his lumber business, he is still reluctant to heed Mae’s advice. By the time Paul finally realizes that he can’t reverse the senseless scapegoating, it is too late: His family’s sheer politeness and unwillingness to confront their detractors or one another will be their undoing. Unfortunately, all the conflict avoidance saps the novel of forward momentum, not to mention that essential ingredient of drama: the struggle against fate.
A relentlessly bleak exposé of human failings with no redemptive glimmer in sight.