Sunday, October 25, 2009
Review of Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan
Phelan, Matt. The Storm in the Barn. Candlewick Press, 2009.
I just finished reading this graphic novel and now I want to take a shower to wash off all the sand I can feel coating my skin and then sit in my green and shady garden. Phelan's gray and beige illustrations, rendered in pencil, ink, and strangely gritty-looking watercolor, feature people, buildings, and fences whose outlines are blurred by ever-present dust. It got into my nostrils and eyes - while reading, I kept rubbing at my face and wishing I had some hand lotion.
Young Jack is the hero of our tale. Picked on by bullies and deemed useless by his careworn dad, he is a caring and helpful brother to his sisters, one of whom has "dust pneumonia" and must spend her days in bed under a draped cloth, reading her Oz books (this is Kansas, after all). When an abandoned barn on the neighboring property begins emitting a periodic strange light at night, Jack warily investigates - and soon comes in contact with a moist and hostile creature who seems in some way to be connected to this 5 year drought. When Jack finally decides to go up against this malevolent character - and wins - the whole community benefits.
This storyline, taken on its own, seems a bit thin to me (a bit like the kindly storekeeper's Jack stories, actually), and I have a bunch of questions about the barn and the carpet bag and the thunder and lightning - it just doesn't hold water, so to speak. But on the other hand, the real story is not the creature in the barn but Jack and his family and his town, and there is plenty of drama there to go around. The rabbit-killing scene alone will leave readers almost as shaken as the townspeople who take part in it.
The illustrations often show show various angles of the same scene, repeat exactly, or show a person's face as its expression transforms by almost imperceptible degrees - and these drawings have a real power. Sometimes I couldn't tell exactly what was going on - a scene with the rainy Creature apparently entangled in some rope had me completely bewildered until I just told myself, "The dude got himself entangled in some rope; time to move on, Eva." Faces and body language are deliciously expressive and tell much of the story, something I've always loved about Phelan's artwork.
The happy ending, when it finally comes, is surprisingly brief. It rains, the townspeople savor it, and Jack's dad, with a gaze that shows some awareness that something extraordinary has occurred, speaks volumes when he tells Jack they're staying on the farm and that he sure could use Jack's help with it. Jack slowly beams - and the rain continues to fall over the land.
So - a slice of dusty 30s life with a strange supernatural element and some intense moments, all illustrated with spare emotion. Recommended for ages 9 and up.