By Deborah E. Kennedy
308 pp. Flatiron Books. $24.99.
Entropy eats at Colliersville, Ind., the town at the center of Deborah E. Kennedy’s moving first novel. Teenagers prowl the edges of a defunct theme park. Apartments crumble under poverty and neglect. The plot point that seems, at first, to connect the disparate people in this book is the disappearance of a girl: 5-year-old Daisy Gonzalez, who vanishes after school one late spring day when a tornado threatens — when cottonwood seeds float like “dry snow” and thunderheads make “knobby purple towers.” Daisy’s loss introduces us to a town where loss is already everywhere.
But if Daisy provides the forward momentum that keeps the reader leaning in, turning pages, her disappearance is in no meaningful way what this novel is about. Much more than the mystery promised in its opening pages, “Tornado Weather” focuses on the volatile forces of class and race that entangle people and divide them. Each chapter follows different characters, and Kennedy expertly manipulates point of view to reveal the nodes in her complex, interlocking plotlines. We see the local dairy that is shut down for hiring illegal Mexican immigrants. We see the local boy who dies in Iraq, and the grocery store employee who hears animals speak but says little himself.
In fact, the book’s real hardware might be described as its network of secrets and silences. What characters can’t or won’t say to each other allows Kennedy to demonstrate the power of knowledge along with its equally powerful counterforce, ignorance. Some of this is the stuff of small-town gossip, as when best friends fail to divulge what they know of the other’s husband’s infidelities. But Kennedy troubles these fissures in riskier and timelier ways. The forced intimacy of a town where “everybody knows everybody,” or seems to, belies a fervently maintained system of bigotry and segregation.
One thing most people in Colliersville do share is a sense of being stuck. “Get out and do more while you still can,” the local hairdresser wants to urge Wally — or Willa — Yoder, the transitioning transgender teenager who helps in her shop. The name “Willa” invokes Cather’s bleakly tender depictions of the Midwest, but I kept thinking of Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio” as I read, and the special brand of Midwestern claustrophobia felt by those who are trapped and unable to imagine any exit. “I’ll never get out of here,” another of Colliersville’s teenagers thinks, “except in a body bag.”
Is it intentional, then, that when we follow two characters beyond Colliersville’s borders, both transits involve tragedy? At the close of “Tornado Weather,” a death facilitates a magical escape, which allows Kennedy to display a panoramic view of the town and its messy social — that is to say, human — striving. This late mystical development comes across as curiously wishful thinking in an otherwise cleareyed book, an oversimplification of problems we’ve come to know up close.
The chaotic kaleidoscope of angry and idiosyncratic perspectives in the earlier chapters is more affecting. Though the book shows us trapped people in a declining town, there is nothing at all claustrophobic about a narrative that shifts its lenses continually and deliberately, playing with degrees of identification as it slides among more than a dozen viewpoints. When two enemies meet accidentally near the end, we see them mourning private griefs, and, having experienced so much, they part at last without rancor: “They knew too much now, of men and women and the world, to hate each other any longer.” By the end of this well-crafted, humane and energetic novel, readers know too much of Kennedy’s characters not to sympathize.
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