Title: The Storm in the Barn
Author/Illustrator: Matt Phelan
Publisher: Candlewick Press, 2009
Hardcover, 208 pages
Genre: KidLit, Graphic Novel
Source: Paperback Swap
First Line: The dust can have it.
I have been fascinated with the Dust Bowl era in America since reading Timothy Egan's marvelous book, The Worst Hard Time. As a result, I find myself keeping an eye peeled for likely fiction and non-fiction written about the period. When The Storm in the Barn appeared on one of my daily emails from Paperback Swap, I snapped it up without checking into it very much. I'm glad I didn't check the facts; otherwise, I wouldn't have requested this graphic novel.
The time is 1937 in a Kansas that's slowly being blown away in the unceasing winds. Jack Clark is eleven. Now that he's big enough to do chores around the farm, there isn't any farm left. His father thought of packing up and leaving, but their old vehicle won't start. Mr. Clark has a worthless farm, a worthless vehicle, a wife who's worn down from work and worry, a daughter who has dust pneumonia and likes to read the Wizard of Oz books-- and Jack, a scrawny, dreamy boy whom the town bullies love.
Jack is so dreamy that the doctor tells his parents that he has dust dementia, so when Jack sees a frightening, shadowy figure in a barn, he doesn't tell anyone about it. What's the use? No one's going to believe him anyway. But when push comes to shove, he's a little boy who wants desperately to help his family, and he decides to confront that big, scary shadow in the barn. You see... he's figured out what it is.
There is so little text in The Storm in the Barn that some readers may yearn for more. My own yearning lasted only the first few pages because I was completely drawn into Phelan's atmospheric drawings. The dust is ever-present, blurring the lines of the familiar and turning everyday things into hidden bogey men and coating the world in a thick layer of hopelessness. Through the dust, young Jack's burning desire to make a difference to his family shines like a beacon.
Phelan paints a worthy visual companion to other Dust Bowl literature, and I'm glad that his book is the first graphic novel I've read.