The day was normal, and the town was failing abysmally. Sixteen-year-old Benjamin Destin and his father, Stanley, are in the next town over loading fertilizer into their trucks when a storm blows in and unleashes a gigantic tornado--the updraft--onto the plains of Oklahoma. Separated from his father, Ben must try to save his town, already suffering financially and socially from the shutdown of its Chrysler plant, and somehow rebuild and achieve redemption out of the destruction of the updraft.
This is a 22,000-word novella. Two additional, never-before-published short stories from Brett Peto, "Barefoot Black" and "Pebble Creek," come after the main story.
Sixteen year-old Ben Destin lags behind his father as they race home in their pickup trucks, trying to beat the massive storm that his father senses in the “shark teeth” clouds and the “guttering storefront fluorescent letters”. By stopping to help an elderly woman, Ben narrowly misses the tornado and its updraft that destroys his hometown of 346 people. Destin and an injured shelter dog named Walter begin the slow process of going through town, checking for survivors, friends, and family. In the empty shell of the Plymouth assembly plant which had heralded the death of the town when it closed twelve years prior, many of the townspeople had taken refuge and lived through the storm. Peto’s story narrates the destruction, the despair, and then the healing of Destin and his neighbors.
Wow! For a short story, Peto packs in so many layers of meaning - philosophical musings about community, faith, relationships, optimism, and despair. I read this narrative before the horrible tragedies in Oklahoma. Since the tornadoes that just devastated Norman and El Reno, Peto’s story seems especially prescient. Yes, I used a big word….inspired by Peto’s vocabulary and figurative and descriptive language which really impress. On the other hand, a friend picked up the story and thought it was difficult to read through because of the vocabulary and because it was too dramatic.
There is so much to this tale; I reread it again and found new insights and details that I’d missed on my first reading. The first page excellently conveys the feel of the town which has shrunken since the closing of its auto plants almost a dozen years before. The excellent writing continues with descriptions of townspeople, relationships, homes, and businesses. The descriptions of Marvin, Walter, Bill, and Heather make you feel their personalities. The descriptions of the town help you feel the immense power and killing force of the tornado. I could see the twisted metal, “bricks stacked in haphazard mounds”, and the victims: Frankie Tardrudis (for instance) – sandy blonde hair “partly covering the yawning wound exposing his spinal cord in pale knobs of bone”.
Peto examines “nostalgic America” which was being “clawed away”… but was “hanging on” because the people possess “a character unseen in cities”. Ben Destin first feels a sad “general cry for the general destruction” then moves to a weeping “specific cry for a specific destruction” (Frankie). He moves through different levels of acceptance, finally deciding that “grief was fine” but “incapacitation was not”. “We get one more chance to prove ourselves.” In the end, an unknown, dying boy trusts in the townspeople to provide the comfort and safety that community in America provides. “Community is not an option, it’s a requirement to be a society.” The boy’s trust and his death reawaken the caring spirits of the townspeople – saving them because “he didn’t give up on us.”
Except for some cussing, I felt like I was reading one of my grandpa’s books from the 1930s. The writing is intelligent – so much meaning is delivered in each small snippet of dialogue, in every descriptive passage, and in every narration of Ben’s inner thoughts. Adults will appreciate the intellectual wording, the excellent description of the aftermath of this most violent storm, and the emotion-inducing situations that evoke reflection on community, family, friends, and faith.
Four and a Half Stars
*Reviewed by Colleen*
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