Devil in the Dust
This approachable Dust Bowl-era coming of age story evokes elements of The Grapes of Wrath and Tobacco Road. Fifteen-year-old Jessie watches the life of her small Oklahoma town slowly blown away while hoping for the return of her absent father. Her head is turned by the arrival of Randall, a well-heeled, slick stranger twice her age. Is he savior or predator? Both Jessie and the town at large struggle with issues of trust and moral boundaries in their struggle to survive. The characters of the town pastor and his wife stand in witness to the town’s slow, dismal apocalypse. Only Randall seems to believe the town has a future, and is determined to exploit its hardship so he can profit for its future recovery.
Very readable in style, the novel’s mood matches its subject, but falls short in providing the emotional connection the reader hopes for. Shifting perspectives, a somewhat overly explanatory style and a limited range of narrative voice and style limit the dimensionality of the characters.
The moral ambiguity may be intentional; demonstrative of the effects of numbing poverty, but we are left feeling there is a lesson we have missed. That said, fans of the era will be affected by its descriptive authenticity.