This is the second novel by Paulette Jiles, a poet and memoirist. Her first novel, Enemy Women, which won a Canadian fiction award, is now at the top of my reading list. She currently lives in Texas and has clearly done her homework on Texas history; she does a masterful job evoking Texas of the 1920s and 1930s with its dust storms, oil strikes and the Great Depression. I could almost feel the dust in my hair and taste it in my mouth. Her spare prose style perfectly reflects the dry, barren Texas landscape.
The story centers on the Stoddard family: the father, Jack, a ne’er-do-well gambler, drinker, horse lover and womanizer; his wife, Elizabeth; and their three daughters, Mayme, Jeanine and Bea. The Stoddards have spent their married life moving around Texas as Jack follows the oil strikes and works delivering pipes and equipment to the oil fields. After Jack’s accidental death, Elizabeth, weary of this itinerant lifestyle, takes her daughters back to the farm on which she was raised, which had been abandoned for years. All Jack left them was a small amount of cash, which Elizabeth promptly invests in an oilcat well and an unlikely racehorse. The girls work hard to survive as they struggle to pay back taxes and get the farm working again. Despite some additional bad luck, they manage to keep the family together while holding on to their dreams of love and success and waiting for better times. However, this is not some saccharine romance. The Stoddard girls have no illusions about men and marriage, thanks to their father.
Don’t miss this story of ordinary people in extraordinary times.