Falling to Earth

Written by Kate Southwood
Review by Kristen Hannum

The worst tornado in U.S. history ripped through the Midwest on March 18, 1925. It killed at least 747 people and injured 2,300. The worst hit town was Murphysboro, Illinois, where 234 people were killed, including 17 children who were at school when it was torn apart. Debut novelist Kate Southwood puts that tornado down in the fictional town of Marah, Illinois, in order to tell the story of a family unscathed amidst the destruction. The Graves family lost friends, but alone among the townspeople, their home was undamaged, their children (home from school with chickenpox) survived, and their business, a lumberyard, was not only spared but thrived—the only example in town. The Graves won’t be forgiven for their good fortune. No matter what the family does to try to help their neighbors, the resentment against them gathers force.

The story is all too believable as Southwood explores how human weaknesses can become evil. By the book’s end I was furious with the townspeople and amazed by how close I felt to the Graves family: Paul, sure that his neighbors would come around; his loving wife, Mae, more easily ground down by the ill will, especially the meanness aimed at their children; and Lavinia, Paul’s mother, who despite her wisdom and love can’t make everything right.

Southwood is a gifted writer, and she offers up a true story here, both in the history but more importantly in the way that fiction can be truer than nonfiction as a way to explore the human heart. Recommended.