Friday, October 23, 2015

An American Digression: HELEN HULL, Heat Lightning (1932)

My copy of Heat Lightning, a happy book sale find

It's been far too long since I've reviewed a Persephone title here. Sometimes I get so distracted by the thrill of the chase after hopelessly obscure authors whose books must be tracked down in libraries in Dayton or Toronto, that I forget there are quite a few really marvellous authors who have already been rediscovered and made readily available. So, even if this American novel of the early 1930s is a bit of a digression from my usual British authors, I'm very glad I happened across it at the library's Big Book Sale in September.

In fact, Heat Lightning has already become a favorite. It's another of those wonderful Persephone selections in which, as they put it in their blurb for the novel, "everything happens and nothing happens." It takes place in the summer of 1930, less than a year after the stock market crash that ushered in the Depression years, and follows the family turmoil that Amy Norton finds when she, in her own turmoil over her relationship with her husband, and with her children away at camp, returns to her home town in Michigan to spend a few days regrouping emotionally by sinking into her old familial roles.

Helen Hull in the 1930s, from the Persephone site

Hull manages to create an astonishing array of memorable characters, each of them so clearly delineated and recognizable that they seem to walk up to you and say hello. I've made a dizzying attempt to compile most of them, just for a demonstration, though I don't promise that I haven't left anyone else. Here goes:

In addition to Amy, there's her parents Albert and Catherine Westover; her grandmother, who lives next door with her housekeeper Lavinia and a disabled man, Curly, who helps with gardening (and who turns out to be a half-brother to Amy's father—an illegitimate child of Amy's grandfather); Amy's sister Mary and her husband Henry, and her brother Ted and his French wife Felice; her neurotic aunt Lora and Lora's sons Tom and Laurance (and his wife Emma) and her daughter Harriet, who is at the least flirting with lesbianism (Hull makes a clever connection to Radclyffe Hall's scandalous novel of a few years earlier, saying of this character, "Poor Harriet was a muddle. Her well of loneliness had brackish waters"); Amy's uncle Dewitt, who has gambled on the stock market and lost, and his wife Isabelle, whose self-esteem seems to be invested in her lavish redecorations of their home each year (they have a daughter, Sophie, who is out of town); Catherine's maid Lulu, who is "in trouble" as a result of a fling with Tom; Charley Johnson, Amy's grandmother's former chauffeur, whom Grandmother set up with his own garage; the Italian family down the street, who provide bootleg liquor to certain family members; and, finally, Amy's husband Geoffrey, who appears late in the novel (her daughter Buff and son Bobs figure prominently but never appear). Whew! How's that for a cast?

A charming original dustjacket (not my copy, sadly)

Now this might sound overwhelming—I know I've had problems before with novels that have vast casts of characters, those where you need a cheat sheet to figure out what's happening. But I have to say that, here, Hull introduces each character so skillfully and makes them so distinctive that I never felt confused about who was who. The developments of the plot are numerous, too, but they center around the events leading up to, and the chaotic aftereffects of, the death of the family's strong-willed, hard-headed, but irresistible matriarch, who has been a leading figure in the town for decades and the backbone of the family since her husband's death many years before.

There are a number of soap opera-ish elements here—a pregnant maid, a bankrupt uncle, a revelation of an illegitimate child—but they are so intelligently and insightfully handled that they simply tug the reader irresistibly forward from the opening pages to the final paragraph. I think it's because Hull succeeds in making this family seem so real. They are people, some likeable, some not, but all interesting, and we care what happens to them.

Original Book-of-the-Month Club flyer, happily found inside my copy

If one were to read the novel (as surely some of its original readers would have—particularly since it was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection) purely for its family saga, one would find it engrossing and satisfying. But it is also a very thoughtful and provocative novel. Amy's observations about family ties, conflict, motherhood, love, and death are perceptive and provocative, and it strikes me as a perfect novel for re-reading, since undoubtedly some of its subtleties will only be revealed at a second or third perusal.

In fact, it's been quite challenging for me to select just two or three of Amy's observations to share here. For example, I love the compassionate metaphor she comes up with about her disruptive, neurotic aunt Lora, whose marriage ended years ago because of her husband's infidelity:

Suddenly Amy's irritation dissolved in a kind of pity without tenderness for the woman. Lora had to run on because she was such a mess inside. Tom drank, and Lora prattled about bootlegging. Laurance had escaped her, and she lamented his ruin. And Harriet—her one daughter—they hadn't come to Harriet yet. Lora was all loose ends; her bright strings of colored stones, her ear-rings were a symbol. Walk past a counter with trays of loose beads at a five and ten cent store, and you had Lora. Her string had broken when she failed with Tom Senior.

Amy's observations about her parents' happy and supportive marriage help her to shed light on her own troubled marriage:

Pride in her mother dropped through her like clear water. "She's wonderful with him. She meets him where he stands, not where she is, herself. She doesn't care about justifying herself to him. He's not really blaming her for anything, he's yelling about other things, serious things." She stood at the top of the stairs, her hand hard against the banister. "When Geoffrey yells at me, I holler back. Always. But why should I do all the work? I want Geoffrey to know where I am. Maybe you can't both know, at once, can't both see what's pinching the other into such unreasonableness."

And I also have to share this observation about parenting, which spoke to me even though I don't have kids myself, and so may be even more striking for those of you who are parents:

Getting away from your children for a while was a good thing, thought Amy. You realized them more completely as people when you weren't concerned with obscuring details about hands that needed washing and clothes that needed mending, and manners that, like the clothes, needed mending. No one had ever told her it would be such an absorbing and delicate and delightful task to be friends with her own children. It differed from friendship with an adult because of the subtle variation from day to day. They grew up by surprising jerks, and if you weren't alert, you were left behind where they had been yesterday and last week.

Heat Lightning's engrossing family stories and Amy's musings about them would be worth the price of admission in themselves. But I think this novel deserves attention just as much for the light it sheds on a pivotal moment in American history. While reading it, I kept feeling what a compelling supplement Hull's book is to Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath or Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road, or the noir thrillers that helped Americans escape their woes during those years. Because Heat Lightning in many ways gives us "the rest of the story" in regard to the early days after the crash.

My copy isn't the Persephone edition, but how could I not show their
endpaper design anyway, a fabric called Memories of the Alamo, from 1929

We've read about the Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age hedonism and greed that led to the stock market crash, and about the soup kitchens and unemployment that resulted, the terrible Dust Bowl in American agriculture and the resulting poverty that Steinbeck and Caldwell portrayed, and the cynicism and ruggedness that became a factor of American culture in the 1930s—the gangsters and bootleggers, and the stoical Hollywood leads that stared boldly back at the harshness of life.

But Hull's brilliance here, I think, is in showing us how ordinary middle-class life went on in those early days, much as usual but with ominous cracks already beginning to show. These are ordinary Americans, as opposed to the iconic, symbolic, rather distant figures from much other Depression-era literature and film. If the novel is mainly concerned with the emotional and social lives of one family in small town Michigan, we nevertheless see glimpses throughout of the earthshaking events of the outside world—haunting the novel's main focus, you might say. There are occasional mentions of Wall Street investors leaping to their deaths from office windows, and even an occasional glance at local evidence of economic decline, as in this passage late in the novel:

"There's another fellow"—he pointed across the road—"who meant to get rich quick. Look at the wreck." Just opposite the car stood an elaborate and flimsy wooden gate, from which the paint had chipped, CHARMWOOD SITES in faded red letters over the shallow arch. In the field beyond was a checkering of roads, grass in the old ruts, and rows of unfinished two-story houses, wind and sun blackened. "He couldn't raise the money to finish his scheme. That was Moody, you remember, Cathy?"

It's a fascinating and perhaps unique snapshot of a moment in time, when American culture was just on the cusp of an irrevocable shift, with the ground in middle-class America just beginning to quiver, its citizens unaware of just how large an upheaval was headed their way. And in the way that it captures that moment, I think the novel is a truly amazing achievement.

As a side note, according to Persephone's bio, Hull wrote a total of 17 novels from the 1920s to the 1960s. She must have been quite successful, as this novel was a 1932 selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, which would have ensured it a substantial readership. I imagine quite a few people have been reading Heat Lightning since it was reprinted by Persephone, but I wonder if any of you have proceeded to track down other of her books? I'm very curious as to whether there are other treasures among her remaining body of work. I know, there I go again, seeking ever greater obscurity, but in this case it appears several of her titles may be available from the Hathi Trust, so perhaps I'll manage to explore one or two of Hull's other titles without having to bother any overworked librarians in Dayton or Toronto…


  1. I loved HL although I haven't managed to find any of her other novels. That's the trouble, isn't it? We find another new author & then don't have time to read more of their books even if we could find them. And then another new author comes along....

    1. That's it exactly, Lyn! I don't know about the road to hell, but the road to retirement certainly seems to be paved with books I intend to read but never get round to...


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