Girl grows up in the Depression-era Texas dustbowl in an evocative but ultimately lackluster second novel from Jiles (Enemy Women, 2001).
Jeanine is the middle daughter of Jack Stoddard, oil-field roustabout and dirt-track racehorse impresario. At age nine, she’s gamely driving drunken, passed-out Dad home in his Tin Lizzie when 19-year-old Ross Everett intervenes, returning the two to Jeanine’s mother Elizabeth and her sisters Mayme and Bea. Then comes the Crash, and the Stoddards move from town to town in search of oil jobs. Jack, his brain injured when he’s exposed to “sour gas,” descends into madness and dies in a jail cell. The women return to Elizabeth’s dilapidated childhood farm. Elizabeth invests their dwindling funds in a wildcat oil well. Jeanine salvages the farm, doing all the housework and repairs, rescuing the peach orchard and clearing the land. As dust storms rage, the New Deal is born and war in Europe looms. Mayme meets a handsome soldier, and Bea scribbles pulpy stories in her journal. Jeanine finds two men mildly amusing: now-widowed rancher Ross, who buys her father’s last stallion and gives her a stake in its winnings; and impish, stuttering newspaperman Milton, whose Runyonesque monologues consume way too much oxygen and page-space. Bea falls down a well, requiring expensive surgery that threatens to bankrupt the family again—unless that oil well isn’t a dry hole after all. Period detail abounds, including authoritative arcana on every subject from oil and horses to windmills and roof patching. Jeanine’s life, beset by one homely obstacle after another (nothing her capable hands can’t handle of course), waxes anticlimactic as she approaches age 21 and resigns herself without much excitement to marriage. The characters other than Milton are utterly convincing in speech and manner, but they’re adrift without a drama in which to act.
If feisty Jeanine could find a vehicle with more horsepower, her return would be most welcome.