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Radio Readers BookByte - A Run To The Finish

Girl Barrel Racing, photograph
Hardin-Simmons Library

I’m Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR: The book is Stormy Weather, by Paulette Jiles

One of the pleasures of author Paulette Jiles’ historical fiction is threefold. One, I get to immerse myself in another time and place - two, her well-researched details, which dress the story and  three, Jiles’ ability to weave characters you don’t wish to leave when the book finishes. 

Paulette Jiles, was born in the middle of the Missouri Ozarks, earned a degree in Romance languages at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, moved to Canada working for the Canadian Broadcasting Agency (learned the Ojibwe language), married a Texan, moved to Texas, traveled, eventually divorced and moved to 36 acres of what she calls her “ranchito,” 80 miles west of San Antonio. 

On her “ranchito,” she has, she says, “necessary work … including feeding and care of two horses and a donkey, fence work, hauling feed and hay, and cleaning stock tanks.” (from the bio on her blog site) The work sounds a lot like her protagonist, tomboyish Jeanine Stoddard, who we follow from age 6, in 1924, to age 21 in late 1938.

Jeanine is her father’s favorite. We are introduced to the pair when Jeanine is six. Jeanine’s father, Jack, takes her with him as he drinks and gambles. She is too young to recognize either his drunkenness or that he was gambling away the last of the family money. Even so, at the toughest moments for this family, they are never truly bleak times. The family always finds something to keep going. 

In Stormy Weather, Jiles’ research fills out the story with details, about early radio, oil booms, horse racing, the crash of 1929, the mohair industry and the dust bowl. When she finally allows her characters a phone line and an electric connection, I couldn’t help but remember visiting my Uncle Bud and Aunt Lil’s farm as a young boy.  

The party line phone on the kitchen wall with a side crank is a firm memory, as is Aunt Lil’s caramel colored wood-burning stove. Bud brought the first tractor to the farm to replace the mules his father had always used. For years, when we visited, Bud showed off his new equipment as soon as we got there. I also remember Aunt Lil bemoaning the difficulty of adjusting to an electric range. This was in the early 1950’s, much later than the dates in our story. 

And about Jile’s research on horse racing, I was pleased to note that she described the horses pulling ahead at the end of the race - not as going faster, but as slowing less than the horses falling behind. Most movies and books give the wrong impression. In the early 1980’s I programmed a handicapping application with a database of racing information, for a gambler I knew. Deceleration data at distances for each horse played an important factor in the calculations. 

The book itself is a bit like a horse race. The first few strides are quick, out of the gate, defining the characters. They form up around the back stretch, then, about two-thirds through the book, all the elements of “Stormy Weather” come together for a run to the finish. 

I’m Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR, Radio Readers’ Book Club: