Radio Readers BookByte: Radio's Influence Not So Significant

Jan 29, 2020

The Lucas gusher near Beaumont, Texas, was one of the first. It is not hard to imagine similar sites in Central Texas' Permian Basin in later years.
Credit By Note: Image is available at [1] on the Paleontological Research Institution web site. The site credits the American Petroleum Institute; however, a Texas roadside historical marker credits John Trost (June 24, 1868 - August 4, 1944) [2] [3] - Original / Wikimedia Commons

Stormy Weather, a novel by Paulette Jiles, tells the story of the Stoddard family in 1930s Texas. Jack Stoddard, the father of the family, makes his living with a team and wagon hauling oil field supplies wherever the latest oil discovery needs him.

Of his three daughters, Jeanine is his favorite, and as the book opens, she is accompanying him everywhere even though she is still a young child. As his constant companion, she becomes aware that all his activities are not consistent with good family values, but she is loyal to him, keeping his secrets as the story moves forward.

Jack is only with us for a few chapters before his own behavior ends his life, and Jeanine is blamed by her family for not revealing his true character before things took a bad turn. The remainder of the book is the story of family’s mother, Elizabeth, and the three daughters as they find a way to survive without “a man” during the great depression. Like most good stories, it’s about human relationships and how the Stoddard women invent a new way to be a family and move forward with their lives.

The common theme of this season’s radio reader book club is radio itself, and I’ll tell you that radio does not feature prominently in this book, constituting one thread in the fabric of the characters’ daily lives. Radio, in this story, doesn’t constitute a significant influence compared to the other forces which buffet their lives as they’re forced to survive the sudden and life-shattering experience of losing the family leader and bread-winner.

It may increase your enjoyment of this book to have some notion of Texas geography. The family moves from place to place in pursuit of work and an appreciation of the dramatic difference between the desolation of the Permian Basin and the lushness of the Piney Woods adds to the idea of the dramatic shifts this family endures. Likewise, a knowledge of oil patch terms will be useful in following the narrative, although the vocabulary isn’t a requirement to appreciate the human interest story.

The journey for these women starts with hopelessness, moves to survival, and eventually finds a measure of success. In the early going, at her lowest point, the main character Janine says she “felt the rent house sailing into the untrustworthy night with themselves as passengers and no one at the helm.” Helplessness is the dominant theme for all of them in the beginning and the sum total of their ambition at that point was to stay in one place.

The modern migration of city people from incorporated municipalities into small acreage country homes has grown dramatically over the past twenty years and the description of the family homestead the story’s characters eventually retreat to is ironically an ideal vision for many of today’s city dwellers. For the Stoddard women, the family homestead represented a fighting chance but was nowhere near the vision of their ideal. They constantly discuss whether they should move into town because caring for the homestead, which has suffered the neglect of time, is not easy.

The main character, Janine, is the one who always believes that things can be managed, problems can be solved, and hardships overcome, and she fights for the idea of creating their own circumstances in a setting over which they have some degree of control. To her, the family homestead represents the permanent home that they’ve never had – “this would be home with curtains at the windows and the voices of friends on the veranda in the evenings.”

This is a “full” story, full of the diversity of a High Plains life -- oil wells, farming, cattle, horse racing, dust storms, and more.  I think you will be engaged in this story of family relationships, of trust and betrayal, and of protagonists acting outside of gender roles all of which are set on a stage of the Great Depression.