review: Marla Cantrell
By Minrose Gwin Harper Collins | 367 pages | $26
On April 5, 1936, a tornado with winds estimated as high as 318 mph, fractured Tupelo, Mississippi. The storm leveled half the town, tearing apart forty-eight city blocks, sending several children flying through the air. When the death toll was tallied, the number reached as high as 233, with another 1,000 injured.
Those are the facts of Promise, a novel based on that devastating twister. As author Minrose Gwin, who grew up in her grandparents’ house in Tupelo, studied the tragedy, another story surfaced. She discovered that members of the African-American community, who made up a third of the town’s population, were not counted among the dead or injured. That omission fueled her research, as she gathered old newspaper articles, conducted interviews, and finally penned this fictional account of one family, the Grand’hommes. Dovey, the matriarch, made a living as a laundress. Her husband Virgil worked in the cotton mill, and their granddaughter Dreama cared for her baby, a boy named Promise.
With the family in place, it was time to chronicle the storm. Gwin does this with such detail, with an eye that’s unwavering even as townspeople are run through with clothes hangers or fall into craters created with century-old trees that are yanked from the ground.
When the tornado hits, Dovey is blown from her home to Gum Pond. She scrambles out of the water with injuries that will threaten her life in the days to come. Virgil, Dreama, and her baby are nowhere to be found.
Dovey soon crosses paths with Jo McNabb, a teenaged girl whose laundry Dovey has done for years. Jo sends Dovey into town to seek help for her mother whose leg was splintered by the storm, and to tell searchers that her baby brother is missing.
It is Jo’s older brother, Son McNabb, however, who is the constant, unholy link between her and Dovey’s family. He is the father of Dreama’s baby and a burden to everyone who populates his life.
With these elements in place, the story sails forward, part mystery, part testimony to the injustices of the time. The storm hits at the height of the Great Depression when the struggle to make ends meet was keen on the best days. After the twister, food, shelter and water become precious things. People wander the streets looking for the missing. Others build bonfires to burn the carcasses of the hundreds of animals that didn’t survive. The souls who are lost cannot be properly mourned, with burials taking place every ten minutes, with little fanfare.
Just as harrowing is Dovey’s struggle to reunite her family. She searches as best she can, compromising her health to do it. Throughout the novel, the lives of Dovey and Jo collide. The two tell the story of the storm’s aftermath in wider and wider circles, until the mysteries they hold overlap and explode.
Promise is an important novel, well researched and so well written you can hear the thunder roll, can see the sky grow angry and omnipotent. Add this book to your must-read list, just don’t crack it open during a storm.