Matt Phelan's powerful graphic novel from 2009, The Storm in the Barn, is as intense and an ultimately as hopeful as Karen Hesse's verse novel set during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, Out of the Dust. Where Hesse's novel creates a snapshot with the words in her poems, Phelan's book is filled with images, leaving us to imagine the words that go with the pictures. While the text in The Storm in the Barn is sparse, when employed it makes an impact. Although the story that he is telling has moments that are cruel and harsh, Phelan's artistic style is gentle, his color palette soft and washed out like the land. And, although the eyes of his characters are most often just black dots, Phelan manages to portray a wide range of emotions on their faces over the course of the story.
Jack Clark was seven the last time he saw rain. Eleven now, his family's farm, livelihood and health is being torn under by the unending, relentless dust storms sweeping the prairie. Picked on by a merciless gang of older boys and unable to be of help to his father on the farm, Jack is desolate. His sadness is misunderstood by the doctor tending to his older sister, Dorothy, who is suffering from dust pneumonia. When Jack returns home after seemingly running into a dust storm instead of away from it, the doctor suggests that he has dust dementia, a "trend, a new condition," that he thinks he is seeing among his patients.
Devoted to Dorothy, Jack spends his free time with her as she reads from L Frank Baum's Ozma of Oz, which seems to eerily reflect the struggles of those affected by the Dust Bowl. Talking about Oz helps Dorothy to forget her illness and the family's failing farm, as does the stories their mother tells them about what Kansas was like when she was a child, before the storms. These moments provide some much needed relief and splashes of color to the otherwise grey and tan story.
But, something in the abandoned Talbot barn across the field is calling to Jack. Mysterious noises, inexplicable mud puddles and strange flashes of light seeping out of the crack in the barn at night pull Jack in.
In one of the most moving passages of dialogue in the story, Jack expresses his frustration at not being able to help and his sense of powerlessness to Dorothy. She tells him that he was only seven, too young to help out when the rains first stopped. No one expected him to help. Then, she says, "you got older, but the farm didn't. The dust stopped everything - except you getting older. It's not your fault that there was nothing for you to do, nothing for you to show us how valuable you are to the farm . . . When the rain went away, it took away your chance to grow up."
Spurred on by stories of the great Jack who fought a two headed giant, among others, that Ernie at the Mercantile has been telling him, Jack comes face to face with the Storm King in the Talbot's barn. Made powerful by his refusal to serve, the refusal to rain, the Storm King finds he has taken an almost human form. The Storm King taunts Jack, fighting with him in the barn. But Jack finds his weak spot and races to the top of the nearest windmill with a mysterious valise that unleashes much needed relief for the townspeople and the farms alike.
In his author's note for Storm in the Barn Matt Phelan talks about the various influences that led him to write this book. Powerful images from a book bought at a used bookstore and the American Experience documentary, Surviving the Dust Bowl. These two things inspired Phelan to imagine what "living in the Dust Bowl must have been like through the eyes of a kid. Without the complicated explanation of the history of over-planting, soil erosion, and other factors, a young boy or girl would only know a world that could suddenly vanish in a moving mountain of dark dust. The rain had gone away. But where?" The American folklore of the "Jack" stories and the popularity of Baum's Oz books as well as Superman gave life to the story swirling in Phelan's head, resulting in this unique book.
One note to parents of sensitive children, a brutal jackrabbit drive is a brief and moving part of this story. Viewed as a battle for survival between the rabbits and the farmers at the time of the Dust Bowl, the rabbit population was out of control and their natural food sources were rapidly disappearing, leaving the farmer's struggling crops as their only food source. Early in Out of the Dust there is a poem called "Rabbit Battles," which portrays a jackrabbit drive in less graphic terms than Phelan's illustrations, but speaks to this reality nonetheless. Horrific as it seems to us now, it was a last resort for desperate people suffering from loss of livelihood and food source as their crops were blown away, their farms covered by layers and layers of dust, their livestock choked by the dust storms.
For more excellent books for children about the dust storm, please be sure to read Jessica Bruder's article Blowin' in the Wind from the New York Times Book Review, November 5, 2009. She reviews three children's books on the subject including Albert Marrin's Years of Dust: The Story of the Dust Bowl, which she says "feels like a museum in the form of a book," in the best possible way. Of Martin W Sandler's Dust Bowl Through the Lens: How Photography Revealed and Helped Remedy a National Disaster, she says that Sandler presents the "two intersecting historical arcs, the crisis of the Dust Bowl and the rise of documentary photography."