Leather-willed, indefatigable women impel Paulette Jiles' s novels. Her debut "Enemy Women " unfolded through the tough eyes of Adair Colley, a teenager pushed into harsh womanhood by the Civil War. As one would expect from a historical novel heroine, Adair was plucky and resourceful, but with enough vulnerability and hope to keep her recognizably human.
In "Stormy Weather," Jiles again plumbs one of the seminal events of American history -- the Great Depression -- to tell a tale of courageous, resilient women equipped with little more than a relentless will to survive. "Stormy Weather" features a quartet of fierce Texas females, the Stoddard women -- mother Elizabeth and her three daughters, Mayme, Jeanine, and Bea -- though this is largely Jeanine's story.
As the novel begins, she's a 9-year-old seated in a wagon beside her father Jack. It's two years before the 1929 stock market crash, but already the Stoddards are wracked by hardships, moving from one dusty town to another in search of a better life.
Many of their trials are due to Jack. He's a handsome rogue -- is there ever any other kind? -- who knows his way around horses and oil rigs; unfortunately he also knows his way around dank barrooms and noisy gambling joints. None of this, however, undermines Jeanine's devotion to her father, at least not when she's an ornery tomboy. She even aids him with his secrets and lies, hiding his whiskey bottles and commandeering his truck when Jack's too drunk to drive.
Jiles never presents Jack as a hapless victim of his own charm and dreams. She makes plain his selfishness and disregard for those closest to him. In a sober, and sobering, moment, Jack tells his daughter, "You'll be mad at me too someday, Jenny. Before the world is done with me." Her father's prediction comes to pass by the time Jack's messy life ends in disgrace and tears.
But with Jack's death, the Stoddard women find their steely selves. As the old saw goes, ain't nothing going on but the rent, and Jack leaves his family with more shattered promises than money. With Jack's ill-tempered stallion, Smoky Joe, they head back to central Texas, and a broken-down farm as desperate as they are.
Here, the novel gathers its rangy energy and heart, and earns its title as storms both literal and figurative rain upon the women. Still, Jiles keeps the horrors from piling up like so many "Grapes of Wrath" clichés, even as she gives voice to raw, grave people not unlike those made famous in Walker Evans' s indelible Depression-era photographs.
Always, the Stoddard women hold fast to each other in a way that gives them a dignity born of a family forged in life's fires. When the three sisters walk into a country store, the owner immediately takes notice. "They were oil field girls, you could tell right away because of the bold way they carried themselves and the way they talked to one another in voices of normal volume, as if they were at home," Jiles writes.
There's often something spirit-lifting about women who can do for themselves, but "Stormy Weather" isn't some pedantic feminist tome. Jiles salutes both a time when perseverance was more valuable than gold, and the women who, instead of being worn down by their struggles, emerged with a hard, brilliant shine.
Renée Graham is a freelance writer.