Do Americans like to romanticize the past too much? Sometimes it feels that way. We keep idly wondering about those “simpler times” when the world felt slower and more measured. We conveniently forget about the hardships, the blood, the pain, or we never remember them at all. Matt Phelan, however, will never be accused of romanticizing the Dust Bowl. An illustrator by trade, Phelan has come out with his very first graphic novel for kids. A measured, handsome volume, The Storm in the Barn is part mystery, part melodrama. Set against sweeping dust-ridden plains with their hard, lined men, Phelan conjures up another time and place. And somehow, in the midst of the pain and the heartbreak, he manages to keep the book completely appropriate for younger readers. It’s a fable. It’s a comic. It’s entirely original and completely wonderful.
Jack has no use. No use at all. When the dust came and the rain stopped, suddenly his family got caught in a kind of limbo. His father won’t ever trust Jack to help him with the chores, his sister Dorothy is sick, and the town bullies are constantly beating him up. Now on top of all that, Jack’s seeing things. Strange things. Lights in barns where there should be no light. A face in made entirely out of water. What’s hiding near his home and does it have any connection to the troubles they now all face? With delicacy and style, Phelan draws readers into another time and place and brings to life a story that is like no other you can find anywhere else.
It’s strange, but the book I kept thinking about as I read this was David Small’s new graphic autobiography Stitches. Not that Stitchesis meant to be read by kids. But both books are good at highlighting iconic images. In this particular case, Phelan has a keen sense of the setting and objects of the time period. As a result, he can bring into sharp focus an image with an almost cinematic sense. People with goggles and masks looming out of a doorway. A snake nailed to a post, its mouth curled up in a ghastly grin. A single red panel frame, the only bright color in the book, suggesting a newly bludgeoned rabbit. There is violence against rabbits, by the way. Bunny lovers would do well to be forewarned.
Phelan also uses sound and silence to his advantage. Much of the book has a kind of silent movie feel, though the art is distinctly noir. While there’s plenty of action, this book is subdued and allows for moments of quiet and reflection. Jack isn’t a loud, boisterous he-man hero. He’s quiet and thoughtful. Cares for his sisters, dislikes bullies, and is willing to hear a good tale. He’s kind of a pint-sized Gary Cooper too, when at last he sees men pushed to near insanity and realizes that he is the one who will have to make it end. He is the one to stand up to a force beyond reckoning. I loved how Phelan drew together the Jack tales of battling outlandish villains with this story and managed to have our very realistic Jack in his very realistic setting fight something supernatural and not jar the reader’s sense of the book’s internal reality.
For a second there, I got worried. Any author that takes a historical moment and then turns it into a parable or an allegory is playing with fire. The notion that the Dust Bowl happened because the rain became sentient is hard to swallow when you’ve read books like Albert Marrin’s Years of Dust which goes through the causes and the troubles of the time period with a fine tooth comb. Fortunately, Phelan has included an Author’s Note that gives weight and depth to his interpretation. As he says, “I began to imagine what the experience of living in the Dust Bowl must have been like through the eyes of a kid. Without the complicated explanation of the history of over-planting, soil erosion, and other factors, a young boy or girl would only know a world that could suddenly vanish in a moving mountain of dark dust. The rain had gone away. But where?” We have books like the Marrin title for our facts. Working in the Jack tales and The Wizard of Oz tales, Phelan has created an all new Kansas fantasy. One that any kid, anywhere, could enjoy.
It’s funny that in this day and age of kids having so little to be responsible for, the story of Jack desperately needing to be useful resonates. I think today’s youngsters will really understand how it is to be a child on a farm somewhere and not to be of any use at all. Just blowing in the wind. Phelan hasn’t just set his story during the Dust Bowl for flavor. The very theme of the book, of needing to take matters into your own hands no matter what the danger, fits in beautifully with this setting. Matt Phelan has given us a graphic novel that tells its story with just the right number of panels and pages. This is storytelling, plain and simple. Get it while you can, folks. Get it while you can.
On shelves September 8th.
- Get a peek inside at the panels over at Graphic Novel Reporter.
- Download a teacher’s guide.
- And finally, the trailer.