By Meghan Kenny
W. W. Norton & Company (2018)
“People survive all sorts of things, and love is one of them.”
From the shocking opening scene to the expansive ending, this coming-of-age story is exquisitely told. It reads like a European film: tight cast, evocative setting, short time frame, liminal historical moment. It’s a quiet world in which everything happens. The language is spare—dry as the season that causes a desperate farmer to end his life.
I may as well try to describe a fine wine or a perfect poem. Meghan Kenny’s book does a fine job of speaking for itself. I fell under its spell and was so reluctant to emerge that I put off reading the last five pages for a week. The narrative reads like a dream. An old story told by an ancestor. A rumor. Observation is at the core of it all. Loving focus on single details pans out to softer views of landscapes. Weather, temperature, and sound intensify the emotion.
“A breeze came through and rustled leaves. Cielle stood a moment at the door, expecting the world to stand still with her, but it didn’t. Clouds like stretched gauze moved quickly above, the tire swing in the oak tree shifted, and its chains creaked.”
Emotion held tightly in the body stiffens or releases of its own accord.
“‘There’s been an accident,’ she said. Then she cried out, almost like a yell, and bit her fist as tears came.”
“She watched him from the corner of her eye as he tried to hold sadness in his body so she wouldn’t see. But she felt sadness, like a current running from his hand into hers, grief in his quick jerks.”
“He kept his finger on the envelope and nodded his head up and down. Cielle stood so still she felt all her weight on the bottom of her feet.”
This is a story of hardship, grit, determination, soldiering on. It was easy to settle into, knowing I was in expert hands. This book is not a relaxing, escapist read; quite the opposite. Every moment is captured cinematically and in unexpected, alternately shocking and poignant images:
A grieving mother stays in a bathtub so long the water has grown cold. On the day of a man’s funeral, a tornado flattens the barn where he hanged himself.
“The world needed to wipe out this place where something bad had happened. The barn couldn’t be there anymore.”
A hundred Amish neighbors show up one day to build a new barn.
The protagonist Cielle is fifteen. The close point of view feels intimate, familiar. It’s easy to empathize with her. Often, she wonders about life, love, loss, grief, and the future.
“Maybe to survive you had to be able to look beyond ugly, dark things in the world, even if it meant pretending. Maybe the people who could do that were the happy ones.”
Kenny gracefully folds in Cielle’s poignant memories of her father, of their walks and outings, hunting for dinosaur bones or arrowheads, or stargazing. These scenes of a man through his daughter’s eyes are so affecting partly because of the contrast with our first introduction to him. The simple stories of their adventures deepen the intensity of his tragic final decision, despite the many ties holding him to this life.
“Her father was fascinated with all things old, lost, buried—and because of that, so was she. She loved the idea of discovery, reclamation, and a continuum.”
There is a lovely dynamic balance between action, Cielle’s reflections, narrative description, scene setting, and dialog. The Driest Season reads like an extended short story (which is originally was).
The absence of moisture and the tightly-held emotion combine with the clear-eyed observation of details to the impression of things being held at arm’s length. People do not act rashly. Characters are described in enviably economical yet vivid ways.
“Helen wore a white eyelet dress and had braids. She was eighteen and tall, and her strides were slow and long. She was a beautiful girl.”
There are several strong female characters. Cielle’s mother, despite our shocking first introduction to her at her most vulnerable and unstable, proves to be reliable, practical, and loving in quiet, fierce ways. She wouldn’t consider self-pity.
“‘Everyone has something to be sad about,’ Cielle’s mother said. ‘Don’t ever forget that.’”
Cielle’s grandmother is equally wise:
“‘Nothing romantic about love, Cielle,’ her grandmother said. ‘It’s hard work to love somebody. Nobody ever tells you that. And it’s hardest when they leave you without reason or warning.’”
In one scene, Cielle and her grandmother cut a field of hay, because women can do such things if the need arises. Another mother—whose beloved first son was ruined by the distant war—has turned to drink. But she manages to be more or less functional. Cielle’s older sister somehow manages to endure not only the sudden, cruel loss of her father, but also her fiancé deciding on his own to enlist in the war. Still, she stays true to her plans to go to college.
The sexism of the era is captured with matter-of-fact subtlety and an absence of judgment:
“She was athletic and sturdy, comfortable on a horse, a good rider, and Cielle felt lucky to have learned about horses from her. If she weren’t a woman, she would have been widely respected for her horsemanship.”
Though grief, disappointment, fear, love, longing, and frustration are pent up in each of the characters, there is no explosion, no release. There is only this moment and the next, all contained within a horizon that seems “within reach, that narrow space where day begins and ends, that separation between heaven and earth.”
Visit Julie E. Gabrielli at Juliegabrielli.com