Radio Readers BookByte: Family Troubles

Jan 20, 2020

The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl required a lot of women and children such as the mother in this iconic photo.
Credit Dorthea Lange, Farm Security Administration / Library of Congress

This is Leslie VonHolten with another HPPR Radio Readers Book Byte.

Jeanine and her sisters Mayme and Bea, and their mother Elizabeth, are forced to forge a new life in the book Stormy Weather by Paulette Jiles.

Their father was, to put it mildly, a drunken lout who worked hard and played harder in the oil fields of Texas.

They moved a lot and struggled to put down roots. Then he does something awful, goes to jail, and almost mercifully, dies.

But these are bootstrap women, these Stoddard gals. They pack up and return to their ramshackle ancestral home and face the shame of Jack Stoddard’s crimes with straight backs and a fortitude that everyone can admire. They get on with it. As a reader, this was refreshing to see, four women being bold and brave and strong. They didn’t miss Jack, and neither did I.

But then there is a tender moment when Jeanine, while patching holes in the house roof with Mayme, says, “Sometimes I wish Dad could know we were doing all right here. That we’re getting by on our own.” Her sister then hugs her. She understands. The context of those sentences is clear: she doesn’t want to boast—see, dad, we’re fine without you. She wants him to be comforted that they are okay.

It’s an interesting passage because we know full well that Jack Stoddard is good for nothing. That his family is, in many ways, better off without him. They know this, too. I bristled at first, because I wanted them to not miss him. I didn’t miss him. He was a jerk, a lush who womanized and gambled most of his money away. Sure, he was a good worker when he wanted to be, but those days were fewer and far between in the end. At nine years old, Jeanine taught herself how to drive a car just so she could drive him home when he was passed out in a drunken stupor. I imagine if Jeanine would have been my daughter, and my heart breaks.

But Jeanine also knows, and so does Mayme, that Jack loved them. He was proud of them, he worked hard because of them. He thought they were wonderful girls, and he spoke to them with respect. Sadly, his character flaws were fatal, and he couldn’t overcome them.

Reading passages like this make me take a step back and look at my own life. Most of us love someone like this, people with good hearts and addiction struggles, people who anger easily or are selfish despite their intentions. It’s easy to judge other families and turn a blind eye to their relationships, which can be black and white without nuance.

How many times have I advised a friend to leave a lazy husband? Or to ignore the criticism of a bitter parent? But if anything, real love is deep and complicated. We struggle. I am thankful for literature to remind me of that.

This is Leslie VonHolten of Chase County, Kansas, hoping you’ll join us in reading Stormy Weather by Paulette Jiles. Find more at HPPR.org, or Like us on Facebook.