“All you need is confidence in yourself.
There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger.
True courage is facing danger when you are afraid,
and that kind of courage you have in plenty.”
–The Wizard, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
In If It Rains, Jennifer L. Wright’s debut novel, this quote takes on new meaning through the challenges of two sisters, fourteen-year-old Kathryn and twenty-year-old Melissa, as they struggle to survive the Dust Bowl.
As if life weren’t hard enough already. Kathryn has a defective foot, Melissa has a defective marriage, and their father is a faltering farmer married to the selfish step-mother.
Yet in Dorothy’s Ozian adventure, published in 1900, Kathryn finds inspiration to keep pressing on three decades later (1935).
Recently I reviewed another novel with Oz tie-ins: Annie’s Stories.
If you’re not an Oz fan, don’t let this scare you off. Oz parallels in If It Rains will delight Oz fans, but won’t detract from the novel for other readers. In fact, such connections enhance the story, despite hardship upon hardship.
The entire novel is cleverly patterned after The Wizard of Oz, with the gray, dusty prairie, storms setting a new course, the hero’s journey, and three companions—for better or for worse, each with a nod to the not-yet-produced MGM movie. In fact, the three men Kathryn meets on her travels are named Frank Fleming (suggesting Oz film director Victor Fleming), Mr. Hickory (name of the Tin Woodman’s farmhand counterpart in the movie), and Bert (as in Bert Lahr who played the Cowardly Lion).
In some way, each lacks brains, heart, or courage, respectively, as a self-proclaimed rainmaker, a former Texas Ranger, and a railroad bum. And like Dorothy, Kathryn longs for home and family—at the risk of health and safety.
But there’s far more than Oz whimsy here. The oppressive Dust Bowl takes center stage as an ominous, hovering mass that infects everything it touches, including cow milk which becomes “sandy as a bowlful of grits” (chapter 3).
The setting is 1930s Oklahoma, smack dab in the middle of the Dust Bowl that afflicted over two million people. Sadly, this was a catastrophe of their own making, due to plowing too much land and disrupting vegetation that held the ground together.
Tucked into the narrative are treasures of Oz tidbits that linger as hope.
Back Cover Blurb
A story of resilience and redemption set against one of America’s defining moments―the Dust Bowl.
It’s 1935 in Oklahoma, and lives are determined by the dust. Fourteen-year-old Kathryn Baile, a spitfire born with a severe clubfoot, is coming of age in desperate times. Once her beloved older sister marries, Kathryn’s only comfort comes in the well-worn pages of her favorite book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Then Kathryn’s father decides to relocate to Indianapolis, and only the promise of a surgery to finally make her “normal” convinces Kathryn to leave Oklahoma behind. But disaster strikes along the way, and Kathryn must rely on her grit and the ragged companions she meets on the road if she is to complete her journey.
Back in Boise City, Melissa Baile Mayfield is the newest member of the wealthiest family in all of Cimarron County. In spite of her poor, rural upbringing, Melissa has just married the town’s most eligible bachelor and is determined to be everything her husband―and her new social class―expects her to be. But as the drought tightens its grip, Henry’s true colors are revealed. Melissa covers her bruises with expensive new makeup and struggles to reconcile her affluent life with that of her starving neighbors. Haunted by the injustice and broken by Henry’s refusal to help, Melissa secretly defies her husband, risking her life to follow God’s leading.
Two sisters, struggling against unspeakable hardship, discover that even in their darkest times, they are still united in spirit, and God is still with them, drawing them home.
If you read this book for no other reason than the sheer poetry of descriptive dust storms, it’s worth it. I’ve never seen so many ways to evoke strong, vivid images of dust.
Fourteen-year-old Kathryn Baile’s voice grabbed me immediately. I loved the style. The first line sets the tone for tragedy.
Kathryn is born with a club foot and has to wear a brace. Her mom died in childbirth. The only thing she has from her mother is the book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. And her dear older sister Melissa, six years her senior.
The girls grow up motherless until their dad James remarries haughty, mean-spirited Helen—which is likely the reason for Kathryn’s bull-headedness and ill manners.
When Melissa has the supposed good fortune to marry into the wealthiest family in the county, the sisters head down different tracks from each other. The rich Mayfields have money from oil, own most of Cimarron County, and rent plots to farmers.
The sisters’ situations are juxtaposed when the Mayfields invite the Bailes for dinner one night. Melissa wears make-up and an exquisite dress, while Kathryn wears her prettiest frock—leftovers from a flour sack. The house has indoor plumbing and beautiful furnishings. The Bailes live in a dugout.
Besides delicious food, dinner consists of fancy table settings and a servant—and Kathryn learning that the Mayfields now own the Bailes’ land. This cements her hatred for the idea of Melissa being married to a Mayfield.
And now Kathryn has to leave town with her dad and Helen. They’re headed to Indianapolis to escape the Dust Bowl and to obtain surgery for correcting Kathryn’s club foot. Melissa remains in dusty Oklahoma.
However, Melissa soon discovers that there are things worse than dust—such as a loveless home. Her husband, Henry Mayfield, is more concerned about social status than his poor neighbors. His polite manners bely his self-absorption.
Kathryn’s travels are accompanied by amazing descriptions of dusters, land, dirt, and sky, particularly in Chapter 5. Jennifer L. Wright could win a contest for 101 creative ways to describe dust. But if you’re not into poetic descriptions, don’t run the other way. The imagery sets the stage and undergirds the story’s tone. The Dust Bowl is a character in its own right.
Under the night sky, in a sweet father-daughter moment, Kathryn’s pa tells her a story about his own father so she’ll have courage, and look to the stars for inspiration.
“Even against all that blackness, they’re there.
The darkness doesn’t scare ’em. In fact, you notice them ’em precisely because of the dark.
Because they keep going. In a dark, scary, noisy world,
they shine out bright, quiet, and brave.” —Pa
Eventually, Kathryn encounters three different companions. Though symbolic of the whimsical Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion, these fellows bring to mind the depraved deviants of Flannery O’Conner’s short stories, trailed by gloom and doom.
This story’s dark characters and plights are actually much darker than what I normally like to read, but the writing is so strong and the protagonists’ plights are so desperate and compelling that I wanted to know what happens.
Melissa encounters her own unsavory characters. She is torn between empathy for those of the humble stock she came from, and her new station in life, full of expectations from polite society and her husband—with his backhanded insults.
To Melissa’s credit, she doesn’t see marriage to Henry as a free ticket out of poverty. At church and in town in her new dresses, she now draws admiring stares from townsfolk, but she sees what she once was, and still identifies with. However, her attempts to reach out are thwarted, unless she operates in secret. And no beautiful dress hides her breaking heart. No amount of make-up hides the bruise rom her husband’s slap.
Be aware this novel is dark. There was nothing optimistic about the Dust Bowl, which is reflected here. After the way life beats Melissa and Kathryn down, I had trouble with the ending and some of the protagonists’ decisions. But this is still a worthwhile read.
At times I wanted to shake Kathryn for her mouthiness and stubbornness. But considering that she never knew her real mother and had to deal with her step-mother’s haughtiness and manipulation, it made sense.
Ultimately, Kathryn later recalls her pa’s lesson:
“This drought, this depression . . . we’re in the blackness.
We can either shine in the dark or be overcome by it.
Sometimes shining means staying. Other times it means going.
But it never means to quit.”
This novel makes for good book group discussion. Check out the book club kit here.
Join me for some Q & A with Jennifer L Wright.
Questions about If It Rains
What inspired you to write about the Dust Bowl?
Jennifer: I have a master’s degree in journalism and worked in both print and radio news before coming over to the fiction side of writing. So, as you can guess from my background, I’m a naturally curious person; if I see something that piques my interest, I tend to travel down the rabbit hole and find out as much about it as I can. This was the case with the Dust Bowl. My military husband received orders to southern New Mexico in 2014 and, being a born and bred Midwesterner, dust storms were a new and fascinating experience for me. After witnessing my first one, I went to the local library and checked out every book I could find on dust storms and, by default, the Dust Bowl. It was from this research the seed that eventually became If It Rains was planted.
Where do your initial story ideas originate from–character, plot, setting, or themes? Which of those was the impetus for If It Rains?
Jennifer: If It Rains was born out of its setting, for sure. The Dust Bowl was such a horrendous and heartbreaking time in history—and yet so many of its stories are often overshadowed by the wars immediately prior and immediately after it. I knew from the get-go I wanted to write a story set during that time. Melissa and Kathryn’s stories then developed from hearing survivors’ stories.
You chose two points of view from which to write If It Rains–fourteen-year-old Kathryn and her older, married sister Melissa. How did you decide on those two characters? Did you plan from the get-go to alternate those two perspectives?
Jennifer: One of the most fascinating aspects of Dust Bowl history was the dichotomy between the two choices people of the time had to make: to stay or to go. I always knew I wanted to tell both sides of that story because each decision came with its own hardships. You can’t have a complete picture of the Dust Bowl without telling both sides. Being able to take these two sisters and somewhat force their hands into taking opposite routes seemed the most natural way to do that.
L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz loosely supplies the story’s framework. Did you plan from the outset for Baum’s story to play a part in this novel, or did that evolve as you wrote?
Jennifer: Baum’s work was always at play, even from the very beginning. Both the book and the movie had been favorites of mine from a very young age. As I was planning out Kathryn’s story line, I knew her goal was always going to be to get back home again. And, in my mind at least, the most famous “I just want to go home” narrative has always been Dorothy’s. It felt natural to have Kathryn’s journey mimic hers.
What intrigues you most about this time period? What elements did you want to include from the get-go? What kind of research was involved?
Jennifer: One of the truly sad things about the Dust Bowl was that it was at least partly human-caused. I knew this was something I wanted to address because, if you learn nothing else about the Dust Bowl, it’s important to understand how it happened, why it happened, and what we can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. I also wanted to include as many “real-life” tidbits as I could from reading books such as Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time and Ken Burns’s documentary on the Dust Bowl. Many of the recollections from real survivors—such as bugs crawling through the dugout walls or seeing the mass extermination of sick cattle—found their way into my story in an attempt to lend authenticity to the time period.
Several readers have described your novel as “dark” or “heavy” regarding either the desperate situations or the seedy characters the sisters encounter. How do you respond to that? Was that your goal? How do you want this story to resonate with your readers?
Jennifer: I’ve said from the very beginning that my writing is not your stereotypical Christian fiction. While it is told from a Christian worldview, it’s not shiny or happy or wrapped up in a neat little bow at the end. I want to tell real-life stories—those that are messy, gritty, and as complicated as we broken sinners are—because I believe some of the most poignant moments of faith in my own life have come from the darkest, heaviest times. There will always be a sort of gloomy tinge to life on this side of heaven, but that doesn’t mean we can’t see God in the middle of it. My hope is that readers will relate this book to their own lives.
Granted, we’re (thankfully) not living in Dust Bowl times anymore, but I think everyone would agree the world is a mess. My goal was always to appeal to both Christian and non-Christian readers alike. This pandemic has given us a unique chance at offering hope to those who maybe never would have considered Jesus before, and it’s my wish that a book like If It Rains would be a gateway to that.
Whether Christian or not, I hope readers can draw strength from the ways Melissa and Kathryn experienced God’s presence in their difficult circumstances and use it as an inspiration to look for Him in their own lives. Because He is there—dark, heavy world or not. We only need to look.
Was there any event in your own life that increased your empathy for Kathryn and Melissa and helped you more effectively relay their plight during the Dust Bowl?
Jennifer: Melissa and Kathryn were both born out of different aspects of my personality. But, for Kathryn especially, her longing and fierce loyalty to home was inspired by my own life as a nomad. My husband is in the Air Force, and we’ve spent the past fifteen years constantly on the move. Because of this, a desire for home—no matter how difficult or imperfect a home it may be—is something deeply interwoven into my being. I understood Kathryn at such a personal level, even those parts of her some readers don’t like, because a lot of her irritating behavior is rooted in a deep-seeded need to belong somewhere, something I myself long for, too.
Questions about Jennifer’s writing
What books have been most influential for you as a writer? Was there a book that sparked or confirmed your desire to be a novelist?
Jennifer: As a child, I loved the Harry Potter books; the level of detail and world-building in those stories was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. As a reader, you were completely immersed. In college, I minored in English and was exposed, for the first time, to many classical works of literature. ‘The Great Gatsby’ is one that sticks out in my mind as the first instance of falling in love with the words of a book rather than the story itself. Fitzgerald’s use of language is simply stunning, and it’s one of those novels I find myself returning to each year because of the pure beauty of it.
Are you an outliner or a pantser? Share a little about your novel writing process, and the length of time it takes to complete a book.
Jennifer: I am a hardcore outliner. I am not brave enough to be a pantser! There are times during the course of writing when I will veer a bit off script but, for the most part, I outline a book chapter by chapter and then try to stick to that outline. Every novel starts with an idea—some sort of historical nugget that piques my curiosity. From there, I do extensive research with books and films, usually anywhere from 3-6 months. It’s usually during the course of my research that the story begins to take shape.
As I’m researching, I’m outlining and brainstorming. Ideally, by the time I’ve exhausted my research materials, I have a fully fleshed out story. I usually spend about a week completing any additional outlining and then anywhere from 6 months to a year writing, depending on how well the story is translating from my idea to actual words on a page. I then spend another a few months doing basic edits before sending it off to my agent for initial feedback.
Are you planning to write more Dust Bowl novels? Do you want to delve into other time periods? Please share something about a future project or the direction you want to go.
Jennifer: I am full-fledged history nerd. I’m interested in all different time periods so I see myself jumping all over the place in regards to future projects. For example, my next book, Come Down Somewhere, is a dual timeline piece focusing on 1945 and 1952. It will be released by Tyndale in the fall of 2022 (see the cover on my website). However, the 1920s and 1930s are, hands down, my favorite time period to read about. I’m currently in the process of researching another book, and I find myself drawn back to that era over and over again. So I wouldn’t count another Dust Bowl novel out just yet.
This is your debut novel. When did you first want to be a novelist? Share about your road to publication.
Jennifer: I have been writing pretty much my entire life. For example, I wrote notebook-length stories I would pass around to my friends in middle school. So, I always knew I wanted to write in some capacity. But, as I mentioned before, I actually started out in journalism and worked for a few years as a reporter before discovering that kind of lifestyle just wasn’t for me. It wasn’t until my son was born and I left the workforce to stay home with him that I decided to give novel-writing a shot.
I wrote steadily for ten years before signing with an agent. If It Rains is my debut novel, but it’s certainly not the first novel I wrote. I have several shelved manuscripts, hundreds upon hundreds of rejections, and many, many failure stories paving the road to publication. There were many times I almost quit over the course of those ten years, but the only thing more painful than continuing to write—and receive rejections—was the thought of not writing.
Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
Jennifer: The first piece of advice I would give is to do your research. Traditional publishing is an extremely hard field to break into. Learn about the industry and how it works. There are lots of great online resources and most authors I know are very approachable and willing to answer any questions you might have because all of us, at some point, have been in your shoes.
The second piece of advice I’d give is to read. This sounds obvious, of course, but there’s more it. Don’t just read for pleasure, although you should absolutely do that too. Read for research. If you love a book, dissect it: what was it about the book that made it work so well? Likewise, if you hated a book, try to figure out what made it so awful. By doing this, you’ll begin to recognize what makes good writing “good” and bad writing “bad,” and you can incorporate that into your own stories.
Lastly, write. Write and don’t give up. Although writing is personal, publishing is a business. Rejections don’t necessarily reflect the quality of your writing; they reflect the status of the marketplace—and the status of that marketplace is in constant flux. So be authentic; write your story in your voice.
Don’t cater to marketplace trends, and don’t fret when the rejections come. Keep going. Keep writing. Keep editing. Keep submitting. No one likes to hear it, but persistence and patience really are the keys to success in this journey. Your story matters. Don’t give up.
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .
If you enjoy If It Rains —and especially the Wizard of Oz connection—you might enjoy my novel Fifteen Minutes with Mr. Baum . Set in Holland, Michigan, this split time novel alternates between 1980 and the early 1900s and spotlights L. Frank Baum, the creator of Oz. Mr. Baum’s storytelling through The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and other books is an example of how certain timeless stories reach across barriers and impact lives. Go here to learn more and watch the book trailer.
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Jennifer Wright has been writing since middle school, eventually earning a master’s degree in journalism from Indiana University. However, it took only a few short months of covering the local news to realize that writing fiction is much better for the soul–and definitely way more fun. A born and bred Hoosier, she was swept off her feet by an Air Force pilot and has spent the past decade traveling the world and, every few years, attempting to make old curtains fit in the windows of a new home.
She currently resides in New Mexico with her husband, two children, one grumpy dachshund, and an overly demanding guinea pig.
She is a member of ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers Association), and can be found on her website JennWrightWrites, Facebook, Instagram, and sometimes (but very rarely) on Twitter. Follow her on Goodreads, BookBub, and Amazon.
Join me next time for a visit with Sarah Loudin Thomas.
Meanwhile, have you read If It Rains? Have you read other novels about the Dust Bowl? Answer in the comments below.