In 1930s rural Oklahoma, where “there seem(s) to be no end to the oppressive sameness,” the most terrifying prospect is sudden change, the sort that rattles your windows, or burns your heart with a stolen glance. The Bell family in Rae Meadows’ new novel, “I Will Send Rain,” is ill-prepared for this unwelcome guest, and when change — and dust — comes hard and fast to their small town, it scatters all four family members, forcing them to reconsider their convictions and determine if they are rooted firmly enough in the dusty soil to stay, or if they will be scattered, once and for all, to the wind.
Set in Mulehead, Okla., at the beginning of the Dust Bowl, the Bell family are determined to stay on their family farm, even when their neighbors move off in the middle of the night in search of a better life. The Bell family patriarch, Samuel, can sympathize: “Desperation, he knew, though, was not something you make a plan for.”
This desperation manifests itself in different ways for members of the Bell family: for Annie, the mother, in a surprising affair with a town official; for Birdie, their daughter, in the dreams and desperate actions taken to purse a life away from the farm; for Fred, their mute youngest, in a dogged devotion to animals, which inadvertently causes him to uncover a family secret.
Perhaps most fascinating is Samuel’s plight: believing the dust is a test from God, he builds a boat in preparation for when the Lord will “wipe out the ruined land. So we can start again.” His dogged devotion drives a wedge between him and his wife, and Annie must decide if it is better to be together in this madness or alone in the wildness of a new life.
With prose as spare and striking as the harsh Dust Bowl landscape, and a “hard-won” optimistic ending, Meadows follows in the footsteps of other great Midwestern writers, succeeding in writing a novel as much about one family as it is about the vast, unforgiving landscape — perhaps her most powerful character of all.