The Storm in the Barn
by Matt Phelan (Candlewick Press, 2009)

What is it about Kansas?

Jack Clark is a young boy living on a farm in Kansas. His first name is "Jack," his last name is "Clark" and his hometown is in Kansas. The fact that this is a tale of comic book-like dimensions at most (think Superman), or very well-employed magical reality at the least (think The Wizard of Oz and Jack & the Beanstalk), is telegraphed from the beginning.

Seven-year-old Jack has grown up against the background of a nightmare, which is why his life is so miserable. The Dust Bowl has been a reality in the lives of his nearly ruined family for four years. He is constantly picked on by bullies. His older sister is ill. The family patriarch always seems to be angry with him and doesn't want him underfoot. He has no playmates, nor is there any work to do on the farm to teach him the skills he needs to mature into adulthood. The unending storms have robbed him of his childhood, and from there, his chance at learning how to grow up. He is a fly trapped in amber, unable to formulate a proper response to the emptiness around him, in his family, in the town he lives in.

Jack wants to prove his worth but not just for his own sake. He wants to help his family, which is withering under the harsh winds like the land itself. Should he leave, or should he find a way to save everyone? Then comes a moment when the world as he knows it takes a sharp turn and he has to decide how to act.

Awakened in the middle of the night by a bright light flashing from his neighbors' barn, Jack investigates and discovers a bag hidden in the rafters. Guarding it is a strange, shadowy figure with a billowing, pointed cape that looks like giant bat wings. It's wonderfully creepy and reminds me of some of Batman's finer moments.

The mysterious figures tells Jack that he is the King of the Rain. He is angry at being forgotten, taken for granted, by humanity. He is withholding the power of the rain so that he will be revered as he once used to be. This is pretty deep stuff that delves into the darker truths behind those fairy tales. An old god is angry and is punishing people excessively. The solution is to give the tribute or depose the god. Overlooked all his life, unable to help any other way, Jack decides to be a sort of reverse Prometheus by taking the god's treasure from him and giving it back to the people.

The story seems simple but is quite layered, referencing three well-known narratives, with Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz and Jack the Giant Killer from Jack & the Beanstalk forming the framework, and Kansas' most famous hero, Superman, providing the foundation.

Plot and characters alike are complex. Matt Phelan's expert pacing keeps the narrative going at a perfect clip. There is a very Gothic, foreboding quality to the despair that is undermining reality for everyone. Snakes are nailed to fence posts in observance of an ancient superstition. Traveling salesmen ply their trades like the ghouls they are, selling fake rainmaker kits to gullible farmers. Strange lights beckon from the barn. Under her dust netting, Jack's older sister Dorothy -- an obvious but still reverential reference -- is slowly succumbing to pneumonia as a direct result of the polluted, dust-mote filled air. His father remains emotionally distant. His mother is overworked and he has to constantly watch his younger sister. They drift along in a dream-like limbo from which there is seemingly no escape, until Jack discovers the Rain King's scheme.

All of this is presented as a possibility that teases the edges of reality. We never know for certain whether what Jack is experiencing is real or not, as he is the only one who sees the Rain King. Is Jack sublimating his sadness and pain in fantasy, trying to work it out via "giant-killing," or is he facing a true menace? Phelan makes certain that the reader isn't forced to choose a direction. Reality is secondary; the emotional decision Jack has to make is to stand up to the monstrous force that is bullying them all into submission. It's not at all hard to believe that rain could become a sentient being, when storms of unbelievable mass and duration have made life as surreal as it has for Jack and his family. One way or another, this has to end, as he says to himself after witnessing one particularly nasty event's demoralizing effect on the townspeople. Read as metaphor or as reality -- and the story is neatly balanced to suit both interpretations -- the point is that heroes are people who fight for what they love and believe in, and Jack's choice is to fight.

The open plains of Kansas are wonderfully rendered by Phelan. His washed-out watercolors are fantastic, done in tones of pastel brown, tan and grey, with black honing the edges like the dust storms themselves, slowly closing in like a living thing. Color is used only when Jack's mother recalls the Paradise that used to exist when she was a girl. People are soft and blurry, except for the hard lines that only just delineate where their faces and bodies are, as though the defining elements of their being are being wiped out as they are forced to adopt increasingly desperate means of survival.

Phelan's use of perspective brings the vast expanse of wasteland right into each page. He has an excellent sense of setting, as well as time and place. I kept waiting to feel grit under my palms as I held the book. The Storm gets its own capital letter here because the way Phelan draws it brings it to life, so much so that it does not seem like an individual group of storms but one big hungry mouth that lies in wait like a predator.

A lot of story is wrapped up in this deceptively simple looking package. But that's the secret about fairy tales: they are never quite what they appear to be, in much the same way that Jack has a lot more inside him than you can see on the surface. When everyone around him is slowly being pushed to their limit, he finds it within himself to stand up to evil and greed and fight for his family and his town, in a way that draws from the finest traditions of many wonderful stories.

review by
Mary Harvey

12 June 2010

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