By the end of this novel's prologue, it is abundantly clear that Ms. Peery's punch lies in her instincts as a short story writer. She is swift and direct, disarming and lyric. Her manner of speaking-through the voices of her dustbowl/depression-era characters-is an identification with the stubborn reticence and perseverance born of that era: 'When she swung into the driver's seat and shut the door, he wondered why, although the day had gone crosswise to his plan, he felt so oddly gleeful. It wasn't just his shriven feet or that they'd dealt with one another to the metes and bounds of their imperfect powers, or that the fire he'd felt to say his piece had come to smoke.'
As far as plot goes, Peery's story centers on the Spoon family-McHenry, Billie Ann, and daughters Mackie and Etta. Theirs is a nerve-strung and seemingly doomed clan, riddled with secrets and unable to communicate the love their blood carries. Peery depends on the elder Mackie to tell the bulk of the story-an initially surprising choice until Mackie's inner and outward trajectories are more fully revealed. Though over half of the book is from Mackie's perspective, Etta, McHenry, Jesse (Mackie's son), Georgette (Etta's daughter), an apparently unrelated middle-aged radiologist, and a retired judge have their say. A novel-in-stories, What the Thunder Said is painfully beautiful, and sharply funny to boot. With the verve of Flannery O'Connor and an eloquence akin to Wendell Berry, Peery magically pulls together these disparate lives by the sheer power of their inconstant, dazzling humanity. 306 pp.
An Eighth Day View:
What the Thunder Said is the 2008 winner of the WILLA Literary Award for Contemporary Fiction. In the Dust Bowl of 1930s Oklahoma, a family comes apart, as sisters Mackie and Etta Spoon keep secrets from their father, and from each other.
Etta, the dangerously impulsive favorite of her father, longs for adventure someplace far away from the bleak and near-barren plains, and she doesn't care how she gets there; watchful Mackie keeps house and obeys the letter of her father's law, while harboring her own dreams. After the massive 1935 Black Sunday dust storm brings ruin to the family, the sisters' conflict threatens further damage. Seeking escape, and wagering their futures on an Indian boarding school runaway named Audie Kipp, the two leave home to forge their own separate paths, each setting off in search of a new life, each finding a fate different than she expected.
Through shifting perspectives, voices, and characters, "What the Thunder Said" tracks their wayward progress, following the sisters, their children, and those whose stories intersect with theirs as they range across the high plains of the West in the decades after the Great Depression. Etta's hitchhiking encounter with a bookish couple in the Garden of the Gods; a prairie jackrabbit drive, during which Mackie's son, Jesse, discovers the cloth he's cut from; an old man's failing memory as he tells of spying on an Indian loner on the outskirts of a Kansas town; a middle-aged doctor's chance meeting with a mysterious wayfarer while on a quest to New Mexico in search of his lost youth; and Mackie's late reconciliation with her aged father, whose habit of silence has bred her own---all are rendered in vivid prose that captures the plains and the people who endured devastation and lived to look back on it.
Slow-gathering, powerful, with passages of haunting beauty, "What the Thunder Said" is the long-awaited third work of fiction by one of our most acclaimed storytellers.