The Storm in the Barn
written by Matt Phelan
Eleven-year-old Jack’s life is as bleak as the dust fields that used to be his family’s farm. In Kansas in 1937, nobody grows much more than dust and farmers are packing up and moving away every day. Trapped as a boy when he should be learning to be a farmer, Jack’s life is made worse by town bullies and by his sister Dorothy’s serious illness. The only bright spot is when Dorothy reads to him from L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, popular fantasies of the time. Jack soon finds himself in a different fantasy, though, when he starts seeing mysterious lights in an abandoned barn. But is Jack really seeing a strange figure with a face like rain or is the dust getting to him, causing a sort of “dust dementia”?
Quiet and pale, Phelan’s tale is as deceptively simple as dust itself. There is not a lot of dialogue; the characters’ words have dried up even as their town has. But the few words that are spoken have the power to either strip a soul bare like a dust storm on the rampage or to quench the thirst of a soul in need. Both types of words are offered to Jack, but it is the soothing relief of the later type that gives him the strength to survive the adventure awaiting him. The owner of the local general store tells him of the exploits of the Jack of legends to bolster him after he is bullied by local kids and his delicate sister reads to him about the experiences of the literary Dorothy. Baum’s words in particular hit Jack hard as it is clear that Baum knows Kansas and knows of the hardship and wonder of life on the plains.
Even if Phelan doesn’t have his characters talk much, they still communicate plenty. Jack’s pained face is echoed by his long-suffering mother and father. The harshness of life has obviously scarred the townspeople and their struggles are evident in their body language. Phelan makes good use of the comic medium, allowing his tale to slowly unfold over the course of as many panels as are needed. He often utilizes closeups to make a point or to clarify a detail. Color is judiciously dealt out. Much of the story is in muted browns, tans, and greys, but the colors become more vibrant when Jack’s mother speaks of her childhood in a green and fertile Kansas or when the shopkeeper tells stories of the folkloric Jack. One scene—a brutal jackrabbit “drive,” where jackrabbits are herded together and slaughtered—is especially powerful. A single bright red panel is used to show the results of the hunt, and later a bright red haze of anger slowly fades from the hunters as their bloodlust cools.
There are some harsh topics in this story, but nothing that is beyond the grasp of an older elementary-school student, fifth grade and up. Phelan’s historical fiction title is a wonderful addition to not only graphic-novel collections, but to children’s fiction in general. It does not talk down to readers, but presents the hardships of the Dust Bowl in a clear, accessible format. This should be picked up by schools and added to reading lists. It is a wonderful work by a talented creator.