After a natural disaster, two families must confront the awful event that links them.
When a tornado struck the town of Tupelo, Mississippi, in April 1936, more than 200 people died. But the black residents who lost their lives during the disaster were not included in the official count of the dead. In her second novel, Gwin (The Queen of Palmyra, 2010) attempts to provide a corrective by focusing on a black family, the Grand’hommes, and a white family, the McNabbs. The story alternates between the perspectives of Dovey, the Grand’homme matriarch and a washerwoman, and Jo, the McNabbs’ teenage daughter, who encounter each other in a somewhat contrived moment after the tornado has passed through town. As each woman navigates the devastation of the city while looking for her family, Gwin explores how Tupelo’s black and white residents were treated differently in the aftermath while capably deploying flashback to reveal the history of each family and the violent moment that unites them. Though the story is generally well-paced, with foreshadowing placed nicely throughout, readers may become impatient once they’ve cracked the mystery that propels the plot. At times, Gwin’s prose is profound and Faulkner-ian in tone: “Time isn’t a river, Jo thought; time is ground and dirt and the roots of ancient trees and the bones of past things. Time is underfoot”; at others, it relies on cliché or the obvious (“melted like snow in the sun”) or misfires in its details, such as a remark about Dovey having walked through the McNabbs’ front door regularly or Jo’s immense regret for using a racial slur, while not providing sufficient evidence for readers to expect such departures from 1930s Southern social mores. Still, those who enjoy Southern fiction that explores both sides of the color line will want to give Gwin’s latest a gander, and the novel’s especially timely focus on what happens to communities in the aftermath of a natural disaster will draw many readers.
Despite some narrative missteps, Gwin’s latest effort will inspire further exploration of an underexamined American tragedy.