Radio Readers BookByte: See You On The Radio

Jan 15, 2020

Gathering around the radio brought people together
Credit Kansas Memory / Ks Historical Society

This is Leslie VonHolten of Chase County, Kansas, with another HPPR Radio Readers Book Byte.

In Stormy Weather by Paulette Jiles, we follow the lives of the Stoddard women—Elizabeth and her daughters Mayme, Jeanine, and Bea—as they work to hold onto their family land and make a life in Dust Bowl Texas.

These are fearless women who stick together, betting on horses, clearing the land, roofing the house, and smart-talking their whole way through. They’re polite but honest. The men who come around need a strong spine and witty banter to maintain their ground.

The book, however, rambles. The story is really stories—plural—and never quite catches onto a forceful narrative. Paulette Jiles, who began her writing career as a poet, is so focused on the details of language that I can’t help but think she rambled about like this on purpose.

In a way this is probably much like childhood during the Dust Bowl years must have felt like, with life and money and the vagaries of bad luck blowing you this way and that. In between the grinding hard dreariness of daily life, you’re winning big at the horse races. The next day, you’re driving a car for the first time at night to try to get your drunk father home. Storms come, tractors break down, dances are anticipated. In other words, good comes, bad is reliable, and you’re just making it up as you go along.

But throughout, the book is punctuated with radio: Serial shows of western derring-do, swing bands, news of the brewing war in Europe—these all come across the airwaves and spark dreams in the kids. Radio makes them want to see the world, to be better versions of themselves, to be heard just like the announcers on the airwaves.

Paulette Jiles uses these radio references in a way that pulls you away from the Stoddard women to a broader view of life in 1937 Texas. One passage stood out to me:

“And in all these kitchens the whisper of radio waves spoke in staticky tones to men pulling on heavy lace-up boots with tangled strings and to women breaking eggs into hot frying pans. They listened to the Early Birds from WFAA out of Dallas and to the songs of Karl the Kowhand. And in all the barns and pastures, animals lifted their heads to listen, their eyes turned with deep and patient interest to the lighted windows.”

Indeed, life is rambling and random. That’s why we knit together community and connections through culture. In the 1930s, just like today, radio was that easy lifeline to grab onto and make yourself feel a little less alone.

The HPPR Radio Readers Book Club is made possible in part by generous gifts from Lon Frahm of Colby and Lynne Hewes of Cimarron, Kansas.

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