There are two ways to write about Indiana – warmly and fuzzily, stirred by sentimentality and nostalgia, and a way that tells the truth. Take for example Deborah E. Kennedy's debut novel, the most recent emerging author winner of the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Awards. Which kind is it? The title of the first chapter makes it pretty clear: “Where They Killed All the Indians.”
As I write this, there's an Indiana chorus in my head saying, “Well, if she can't say something nice, she shouldn't say anything at all.” And, “That was all in the past. No use dwelling on it!”
To them I say, “This is why everyone in the state of Indiana needs to read this book.”
“Tornado Weather” takes place in fictional Colliersville, in the vicinity of DeKalb County, north of Kennedy's hometown of Fort Wayne. Colliersville may be in the middle of nowhere, but it's the center of everything that's going on in our country right now. There's a mystery at the heart of this book, but this isn't a mystery novel, per se. It's a chorus of voices, similar in structure to Sherwood Anderson's “Winesburg, Ohio.” And the mystery is: Where is 5-year-old Daisy Gonzalez?
Her disappearance comes just after the local dairy owner is busted for exploiting cheap Mexican labor, leaving the “illegals” stranded in hostile territory. One gets a job stripping at Miss Kitty's. Another gets a custodian job. Sometimes at the laundromat, they jam up the washers with pesos, until one day the owner posts a “No Mexicens” sign (yes, misspelled).
Characters such as Sunday school teacher Shellie Pogue and the Seavers blame these Mexican immigrants for Daisy's disappearance. But plenty of middle-class, minivan driving, church-going, small-business owning, McMansion-living residents harbor the same prejudices. “The prevailing opinion of Colliersville's native population toward Mexicans of all kinds...was a hateful thing to behold.”
“Tornado Weather” is set before the 2016 election, but clearly, the election of Donald Trump is on the horizon. You see it in the casual racism (characters referring to a certain school bus route as “the ghetto bus”) and the not-so-casual kind (slurs scrawled in Sharpie, men target-shooting at a “cartoonish” likeness of Barack Obama), to the outright hateful (“People like Shellie Pogue and the entire Seaver clan ... thought the solution to illegal immigration was to build an eight-hundred mile humming fence along the Rio Grande that would electrocute men, women, and children upon contact.”), which leads to the act that precipitates the novel's central, inevitable tragedy.
Colliersville and its residents struggle with other kinds of change. Once, Shellie Pogue “could count on knowing everyone in town. But now, wherever she went she ran into people speaking Spanish. ... Shellie was confronted with whole families of strangers who clearly didn't belong here.” Willa Yoder, a young trans woman, looks for acceptance at the local Hair Barn, while her mother Birdy tries to kick opioids at the county rehab facility. When Helen Garrety's grandson Kenny enlists to fight in Iraq, she blames George W. Bush personally, which prompts her old friend Shellie Pogue to accuse her of “spitting on the flag.” With nearly every chapter set in Colliersville, the reader is immersed within the small-town mindset, in which being different “was pretty much as bad as it got.”
Why do these attitudes prevail? Kennedy's answer is simple: the suspicion and fear has always been there.
She draws a line from town namesake Gen. Henry Collier, who slaughtered a whole Native American village because a local chief kidnapped his daughter, to Hank Seaver, whose militia group shoots targets wearing sombreros and who warns his daughter, Renee, of dangerous Mexican men.
Despite everything I've written here, “Tornado Weather” is a positive, hopeful book. As much as Kennedy underscores Indiana's faults, she believes in us, too. Warmly. Fuzzily. Sentimentally. That we can overcome our political differences and rally together. That we can change and find common ground. That God exists.
It's books like “Tornado Weather” that will make America great again.
Cathy Day is the author of “The Circus in Winter” and “Comeback Season.” She teaches at Ball State University. The review is made possible by the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Awards and Indiana Humanities.
“Tornado Weather by Deborah E. Kennedy (Flatiron Books) 320 pages, $15.99