The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan
Candlewick Press, 2009.
Hardback, full color, 208 pages.
When I saw Illustrator Matt Phelan had a graphic novel out, I had to have a look. Found this copy at the Library.
In Kansas in the year 1937, eleven-year-old Jack Clark faces his share of ordinary challenges: local bullies, his father’s failed expectations, a little sister with an eye for trouble. But he also has to deal with the effects of the Dust Bowl, including rising tensions in his small town and the spread of a shadowy illness. Certainly a case of dust dementia would explain who (or what) Jack has glimpsed in the Talbot’s abandoned barn — a sinister figure with a face like rain. In a land where it never rains, it’s hard to trust what you see with your own eyes — and harder still to take heart and be a hero when the time comes. With phenomenal pacing, sensitivity, and a sure command of suspense, Matt Phelan ushers us into a world where desperation is transformed by unexpected courage. ~publisher’s comments.
My first encounter with Matt Phelan was with Susan Patron’s Higher Power of Lucky. I knew what how much he could capture with a few whisps of line and color. Matt Phelan, like Jeff Lamire (of Tales of Essex County) before him, proves only the details that matter are the ones to use. Spare can be more. Matt Phelan has an original and creative voice in this graphic novel for children (10 & up)*.
The palette is a muted one, washed as if the dust formed a cloud before the Reader’s eye as well. The shift between warm color and cold is subtle, a seamless movement of the atmospheric. The soft off-white color of the page, the soft-penciled hand-drawn lines of the frames, give a dream-like and home-spun charm to the read. My only complaint is how the text comes across as cold and hard whenever it appears. No doubt the typed-font lettering was a necessity, nevertheless it was so staid amidst the constant sense of movement Phelan portrays. In a largely textless novel, Matt Phelan leaves nothing to chance, his images have a way of saying everything for him.
“I wanted to bring in elements of American folklore, like the Jack tales that were still being told and the Oz books that had been enthralling kids for thirty-odd years at that point.” Matt Phelan (“Author’s Note”)
That a figure with a face like rain, looming, sinister, is even a character in this Historical Fiction set during the Dust Bowl doesn’t come out of no where. Ernie at the general store likes to tell Jack stories of another Jack. And Oz is very much alive, very relevantly applied to The Storm in the Barn. But even the idea of that one of the children had never really experienced the rain seems incredible to the Reader. Indeed, what has kept the rain from falling? What might explain its fantastic absence?
Matt Phelan doesn’t leave out other explanations as to how the residents of this small town in Kansas happened into their plight. With a story told by Jack’s mother, we see a verdant landscape (rich and warmly painted) “an ocean of grass” (69). “The Indians had it first. Acres of pastureland.” accompanies an image of a singular Indian on a horse with the grass still green and wild. Below it on the page with four equal rectangular frames, “Then the white folks moved them out and started ranching.” There is a house (where the Indian stood), the ground is brown with tufts of grass, a fence with cattle behind it.” The last frame shows a land empty but for miles of soil to farm and hope. Things went well for their mother as she grew up and started a family of her own. “And then…” (71) the dust comes to scrub out the image for “We were so happy.” The devastation becomes all the more stark. And yet there is a small nugget of hope proffered and Jack clings to it.
Jack is evidently different from the boys his age (who find this a reason to bully him no doubt), but that he doesn’t meet his father’s expectation is telling, too. He is seen as inept and sensitive. However, because he is different, he provides us will some hope for change even if it does provoke real anxiety. Will Jack be able to confront and defeat that dark and sinister being who’s taken up residence in Talbot’s barn? Is he really as demented as the doctor’s say? His sister is certainly as ill as they’d diagnosed. But who else could bring back the rain? Certainly not the boys who join their fathers and the other grown men in the “Rabbit drive”–which is AWFUL, by the way.
Phelan discovered a “brutal jackrabbit drive” from documentary footage. “This last event still haunted survivors of the time who, now in their old age, were interviewed for the documentary” (“Author’s Note”). The sequence in The Storm in the Barn punctuates the ubiquitous sense of violence and desperation and anger–and most hauntingly, regret. The regret makes the hard landscape of the people (in particular the men) even more human than their fear does.
It is little wonder how Jack might come to see the sinister storm-faced figure as one who refuses to “serve. And in doing so, the Rain became powerful” (154). Selfish and domineering the self-proclaimed king put the thunder and lightning in a piece of luggage. Which, when released, frees everyone from all manner of repressed emotion–in particular Jack’s father. Being able to find connection between the realized form of Rain and the Father (who look notably similar if not the same) and the culture helps facilitate the most plausible change in the Father at the end–his hugging his son, his sudden acceptance of Jack. Otherwise, as when I read this novel the first time, it feels false and overly optimistic. But then, who doesn’t want a happy ending. Jack is such a likable character, you really desire his success and happiness.
The Storm in the Barn is not for the impatient. The sequences of stills progressing in emotion require more than a fleeting glance to enjoy the full sense of dread, despair, and an ultimately hard-won victory. The informative aspects of this Historical Fiction are caught up in the story of Jack and his own heroic adventure. The Storm in the Barn is an easy sell to classrooms, will attract any level of reader of either gender. The cinematic start tantalizes the Reader with the idea there might be a few scares, you know, in case the cover hadn’t already lured them in with that kind of promise. And there are some scares. Tall tale or no, muted, yet vividly dark, The Storm in the Barn would weave a compelling story.
*could go slightly younger, but the jackrabbits scene would be too much for sensitive readers. also, good comprehension of nuance, etc. should be considered.
Good and insightful as ever, but especially for the educators : The Graphic Classroom’s review.