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Narrative of love and sadness on American plains falls flat

What the Thunder Said, By Janet Peery, St. Martin’s, 320 pp., $24.95

Janet Peery is a terrific writer whose earlier books have received much critical acclaim. Her third book, "What the Thunder Said," evokes the searing sadness of the American plains in the time of the Dust Bowl.

What, you may ask, is there to say after "The Grapes of Wrath" and the songs of Woody Guthrie , whom she quotes in one of her epigraphs? The answer lies in another epigraph, which recalls the "the sorrow of being on this earth" from James Agee's novel "A Death in the Family." You can feel Agee's vision and gift for language standing behind Peery's book, and although Peery's new novel, as good as it is, doesn't match the enormous achievement of Agee's, you must admire not only the story she sets out to tell, but her ambition as to its scope.

This is the story of the Spoon family, and the protagonist is shy, honorable Mackie, the first child of a strange marriage whose beginnings are kept secret from her although they become known to her younger, fiery sister, Etta. It is a complicated tale of sibling love and rivalry, of parental guilt, and of emotions that become as shattered as the very landscape against which they are revealed. After the arrival of a half-Indian hired boy, Audie Kipp, and their mother's accidental and somewhat mysterious death, the fantasies haunting these two lonely girls become realities. The narrative -- that Mackie loves Audie who loves Etta who loves the no-good Becker Birdsall and that Etta becomes pregnant by Becker and marries Audie and Mackie finally runs away only to be betrayed by another man after he impregnates her -- is as old as time.

But there are moments in this book when Peery's language lifts the story into a more universal realm. Here is Mackie describing her feelings when she and Call make love for the first time in the barn: "We lay down in all of it, in a way that felt like all the world was gathered into one sweet skin, and though you knew it was wrong, down deep, in bone and blood and muscle, you desired the one forbidden thing your head told you you weren't supposed to want, and in that wanting, in that knowing it was wrong, there was a stillness at the center, calm and full and sly, that came from knowing you would do it anyway, and you could tell your head to cease its thinking, to let the bone and blood and muscle have their way, glad, for what you were doing seemed the holiest of human acts and in that time when everything was fighting in you you were as whole as you would ever be."

As the book progresses, though, I began to feel that Peery was getting mired by her beautiful language and also by the need to make this an "important" novel. Although a reviewer has no right to tell a writer how to weave a narrative, I must confess intense disappointment as I waited for a confrontation between Etta and Mackie. It almost happens in a scene strangely flat and unconvincing when compared to the rest of Mackie's first-person narrative, which is consistently interesting and sometimes unbearably touching, especially when she relates how cruelly she is spurned by her lover and his community.

The problem is that Mackie's narrative ends about two-thirds through the book and the stories of these sisters as adults and those of their offspring -- Mackie's boy, Jesse, and Etta's daughter, Georgette -- are told more distantly in Book Two called "How the Okies Look to the Natives." In these chapters, which are uneven in quality and more like disconnected short stories, the novel loses its intensity and the characters become less particular. One tale, in which you get to know Georgette, is splendid, but others veer off into melodrama, like Jesse's rebellious participation in a jackrabbit drive . Or, worse, preciousness, like the tale told after 9/11 by an old member of a very typical contemporary book group about Mackie's love affair and eventual marriage.

Yet even here, when Maxine (as she is now called) is center stage, the story of her love affair with John Freeman and how she takes over his diner and her complex friendship with their helper, Gus, is riveting.

I wish Peery had let Mackie bring her own story into the future. You could argue that these new characters and locales in the last third of this book give it greater breadth. I don't think so. Mackie is a wonderfully realized woman who fits into the landscape Peery has created with unique precision. As she matures she develops strength and wisdom, which temper her early passion. To see that happen so naturally, with such insight on Peery's part, is a pleasure and a reason to read this novel, and I wanted as much as I could have of her.

All we can hope is that Peery's narrative gifts will catch up with her exceptional prose and that her next book will fulfill the promise so clear in this one.

Roberta Silman has published a story collection and three novels. She can be reached at