The English used to be the champions of idle chitchat about the weather. But Americans are catching up. There has been so much dramatic weather to talk about lately, drought in California, floods in Texas, tornadoes across the mid-west, and in our own area the daily pinging of alert messages on our phones warning of storms and flash floods. We’ll soon be in hurricane season with the south and eastern seaboard under constant threat. Weather rampages across the country like a monstrous character in a horror novel, or the personification of chaos in a myth.
There is one group of people who are always happy about the weather, no matter how bad it gets: novelists. Since well before the immortal line “it was a dark and stormy night” novelists have used the weather to create atmosphere in their tales. Here the English have no rival. Their notoriously dreary weather was particularly useful for nineteenth century novelists, and can even be blamed for the invention of the Gothic. In 1816, known as “the year without a summer,” Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Mary Godwin fled the gloom of England for a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva. Alas, there was no summer there either. The friends entertained themselves on cold evenings with readings of their works in progress. Byron and Shelley wrote dark, brooding poetry and Mary, who later married Shelley, wrote the first draft of Frankenstein. You can read more about this scandalous literary summer in The Poet and the Vampyre: the Curse of Byron and the Birth of Literature’s Greatest Monsters by Andrew Stott, the perfect book for a stormy night.
The Bronte sisters made good use of the bleak weather on the Yorkshire moors. Emily gave us the lovely word “wuthering” and Charlotte sets the tone for Jane Eyre by bringing on the rain in her very first sentence. George Eliot ends The Mill on the Floss with a flood of biblical proportions, which sweeps Maggie and Tom to their deaths. The description of the brother and sister clasping each other in a final embrace brought on floods of tears when I first read it as a teenager.
American literature is full of apocalyptic life-changing weather events. Dorothy would never have visited The Wizard of Oz without that tornado. The dust bowl era also inspired the classic The Grapes of Wrath as well as many other books. Although it is shelved in the children’s section, adults should not miss Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, a novel in verse.
A more recent weather disaster, Hurricane Katrina, is the setting for Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, winner of the 2011 National Book Award. As the hurricane bears down on Mississippi a poor African-American family pull together to survive the storm. Written with suspense and poetry, this is an unforgettable portrait of a family tested by everyday reality and extraordinary danger. A storm inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest is the title event in The Storm by Frederick Buechner. Long estranged brothers are among a group of outcasts and misfits living on a South Florida island as a storm gathers. Will it bring destruction or reconciliation?
Whatever the weather this summer, you're sure to need a stack of reading from the library. Find summer reading suggestions at The Readers’ Café, in book displays at your local MCPL library, and in person from a librarian at the Information Desk. Here’s hoping for sunny days at the beach this summer, and may the stormy weather stay firmly between the pages of your books.