Megaseller Brown (Smash Cut, 2009, etc.) tries her hand at historical fiction in this slight tale of a Depression-era landlady and her mysterious boarder.
Gilead, Texas—1934, population 5,000, if you don’t count the unfortunates inhabiting the shantytown on the city limits—is reeling from the ravages of the crash and the drought, but Ella Barron’s boarding house is an enclave of efficient domesticity. With the help of her black maid Margaret, Ella serves three squares a day, handles arduous Monday washdays and keeps an impeccable house for her tenants, a travelling salesman and two spinsters. Her husband skipped town some time ago, and Ella’s ten-year-old son Solly is given to strange compulsions and fits that their family physician, Dr. Kincaid, can’t diagnose. (Autism-spectrum disorders were then unknown.) Into Ella’s regimented life comes Mr. Rainwater, Kincaid’s cancer-stricken distant cousin. A prosperous former cotton broker, lanky, handsome Rainwater has decided to spend his final weeks at Ella’s boardinghouse. Despite his moribund condition and bouts of severe pain, he is a quixotic social activist. Drought-impoverished cattle farmers are being forced to sell their starving herds to a government program that dispatches the cattle on site, burying the emaciated carcasses in huge ditches. When ranchers allow Shantytown residents to scavenge the ditches for meat, a gang led by town bully Conrad Ellis, whose family meatpacking business is threatened, terrorizes scavengers and ranchers alike. Conrad is only temporarily deterred by the group resistance organized by Rainwater; an eventual showdown between the two is as inevitable as the romance between Ella and Rainwater, who moves her by seeing the savant in Solly where others see only idiocy. Despite Brown’s earnest dramatization of the era’s horrors, including racial prejudice, lynching, homelessness and hunger, the novel never achieves the pathos she aims for. Her characters are simply too wooden, her Depression too much like a sepia-tinted souvenir photo.
Mediocre, but with the author’s track record and a pre-Christmas release, how can it fail?