New fiction: spies, losses, secrets

May 06, 2007|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to The Sun

Killing Che

By Chuck Pfarrer

What the Thunder Said

By Janet Peery

St. Martin's Press / 304 pages / $24.95

National Book Award finalist Janet Peery presents a novel of sibling rivalry in stories with What the Thunder Said. Sisters Mackie and Etta Spoon lead a seemingly prosaic life with their father, McHenry, in the 1930s Oklahoma Dust Bowl. It's a harsh landscape and a harsher familial territory that the two young women traverse as they compete for the affections of their father and a Native American orphan, Audie, who has run away from a boarding school. Both girls have secrets that force the two apart: Etta's knowledge of her older sister's parentage and Mackie's discovery of her sister's lover.

Etta - her father's obvious favorite - is desperate to escape the cloying confines of the dust-swept plains and is staking her claims long before her father or sister realize it. Mackie, the introspective and obedient one, has an utterly different set of dreams. Both seek love and acceptance and into this fraught familial triangle comes Audie, seeking work - and his own need for love and acceptance.

Etta leaves home, Mackie does not, but the rift caused by their father and Audie is seemingly insurmountable. What happens between the sisters - a drama set in bold relief against the agony of the drought-ridden plains - may be irrevocable and their children and father will bear the brunt of their estrangement. The book moves back and forth in time, past and future merging as Peery reveals the various layers of her characters. Peery has a definite flair for language and characterization, and her description of the Dust Bowl is harrowing. Book One resonates with all the torments that the land has placed upon its inhabitants. But Book Two is less structured and frustratingly thin at points. Nevertheless, Peery presents a disturbing story of marginalization during one of America's most chaotic and devastating times.

Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of numerous books, most recently "The Golden Age of Lesbian Erotica: 1920-1940." She is currently at work on a book about Leon Trotsky and Frida Kahlo. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

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