I tacked the Earthquake Preparedness checklist to my bulletin board several years ago, vowing I’d devote a weekend to assembling the suggested survival kit. I finally admitted defeat when we moved this spring and tossed it into recycling. But I had a queasy feeling my careless act meant I’d set the Pacific Northwest’s geologic karma a-tilt.
Like many residents of the Pacific Ring of Fire, I sense we are living on borrowed time. The Big One - the devastating earthquake that is a matter of when, not if - hangs in the ether of the abstract. It solidifies into fear during the days after a Tōhoku or a Christchurch, when shifting tectonics wreak horror on neighbors who share our ocean and our peril.
It is during one of these cataclysmic events when I look across the shining steel and glass landscapes of Seattle and imagine them crumbling as the earth ripples and shreds. I imagine a city in shambles; I think of that checklist, with its recommended gallons of water, cans of food, and fuel to be stored in car and cellar. There should be enough to get through several days while the region’s utilities scramble to restart and grocery store shelves are emptied by those like me, who didn’t prepare, or worse – by looters. I think of all the horrific possibilities and resolve to get serious about that disaster checklist.
What I never considered, however, was what it would be like to be someone who escapes harm, whose home remains standing while others are ripped apart, to be someone whose livelihood is not only left intact but who would in fact benefit from the destruction. I never considered how a moment’s good fortune could unleash a nightmare.
But author Kate Southwood has. In her raw and elegiac novel, Falling to Earth, she presents a parable of survival that causes the reader to reconsider disaster and its victims.
In March 1925, the Tri-State tornado tore through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, flattening dozens of communities and killing nearly 700 people. One of the destroyed towns was Murphysboro, in southwest Illinois. The author’s fictional Marah, IL steps in for the real Murphysboro. The images of the tornado’s destruction are made all the more gut-wrenching by Southwood’s clean, unaffected, elegant writing. She presents the gruesome scenes of homes and bodies ripped apart through the eyes of the survivors. Those who are able set themselves immediately to digging out the dead from the rubble. They bear witness to the gruesome scene of bodies torn apart by impartial winds, yet shock protects them from internalizing the horror until it is time to begin rebuilding.
The plot centers on one family: Paul and Mae Graves, their three children and Paul’s mother, Lavinia. They alone emerge from the tragedy without injury, either to their bodies or to their home. Even Paul’s business, the local lumberyard, is unscathed. The Graves respond with gratitude and, like every other survivor in town, they focus on helping their neighbors. The women open the Graves’s kitchen and gather clothing for the homeless; corpses are laid out on the front porch; Paul and his crew saw pine boards by hand and build dozens of coffins. No one has the time or the energy to think about anything other than the moment at hand and mustering the will to get to the next.
Yet within days, over open fires at the camp built for survivors on the edge of Marah, at the camp’s laundry area, in the town’s trash-strewn streets, in what remains of neighbors’ front yards, the whispering begins.
Is it true what they’re saying about Paul Graves?
Didn’t get hit.
You mean his place? His house didn’t get hit?
Not just his place. The lumberyard, too. Neither one got touched.
His kids weren’t even in school that day. Home sick, all of them, and down cellar.
One man whistles in spiteful amazement. That’s luck for you.
Another man looks from face to face and says Well, that can’t be. There can’t be just one. The others look back knowingly, in gentle derision of his disbelief. …To accept this news as true is to magnify his own anguish…
What follows is haunting exposition on grief and suffering. The random nature of the tornado’s destruction represents the random nature of tragedy, no matter the mode of delivery. Southwood’s writing is pitch perfect – the poise with which she handles her themes of human nature, chance, suffering and loss left me breathless with admiration. There are a few omniscient voice passages that feel heavy-handed, but even these give the reader a chance to step back and view the destruction - first by the tornado, later by the town’s unity against the Graves – from a detached perspective before diving back into the immediacy of the Graves’s peril.
This is a tremendous début: insightful, imaginative and timeless.
I lived for a few years in the Midwest – in central Illinois – where each Tuesday from early spring to the first weeks of autumn the tornado warning siren would sound its practice run. It was something to be ignored. You plugged your ears if you were crossing campus at the wrong moment.
There were occasions when the siren wasn’t a test. We piled into the hallway of our building, a designated tornado-safe zone. The building’s emergency designate held the radio handset to his ear, waiting for instructions to crackle through.
Each time the tornado took a different path or failed to materialize into a storm that touched ground. But that time, as is all time, was borrowed. Borrowed from tragedies past and those yet to come.