As the drought worsens and dust begins to seep everywhere, the family also begins to fall apart. Samuel, the head of the family, begins to have dreams about rain, which he believes are a sign from God to build an arc in order to prepare for an impending flood. His wife Annie is overwhelmed by the rapidly approaching threat of famine, and by her son Fred’s inability to breathe as a result of the ever-present dust. When the new mayor Jack Lily turns his attentions towards her, Annie throws herself into an impulsive affair with him, while her eldest daughter Birdie also engages in a dangerous relationship of her own.
Inevitably, when I think about the terrible period of dust storms that plagued the area known as the Great Plains during the time of the Great Depression, my schoolgirl mind immediately recalls Salinas native, John Steinbeck. When I first read The Grapes of Wrath in my sophomore year, I admit to a confusing dichotomy of dislike and awe for Steinbeck’s lurid portrayal of the Dust Bowl, name given to the Great Plains as a consequence of the drought between 1934 to 1937. Steinbeck’s award-winning novel focuses on the Joads, a poverty-stricken family of farmers, driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship brought on by the Depression, changes in the agricultural landscape and a banking crisis.
Steinbeck doesn’t cut back in the descriptions of the many heart-breaking evils that befall the Joads from the moment they are forced to leave their home and journey on to California, under the promise of work and the possibility of a better life. Along the obstacle-ridden way, the Joads have to contend with the hatred of others that spitefully refer to them as “okies”, while also dealing with personal crises within the family.
What makes Steinbeck a magnificent narrator, is conversely the same reason that brought me so close to loathing him in school. The descriptions of the dust storms, the yellowish and arid landscape, the slow travel to California aboard a rickety vehicle, the general sense of complete hopelessness, and the assurance that no matter what they did and how hard they tried, the Joads would never find a better life. I found myself often suffocating under Steinbeck’s words, and wanting nothing more to do with his novel, so filled with constant crushing despair.
Meadows brought me back to the Dust Bowl, a place I had refused to return to since my long-ago opposing emotions surrounding Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath. I don’t regret the journey. For me, Meadows’ approach to her story and the characters involved had a softer edge than Steinbeck’s which allowed me to understand the Bells in a clearer light that wasn’t quite there when it came to the Joads. This doesn’t mean that this story is any less difficult to read, or that in someway it lessens the harshness of some of the characters’ choices. But one can relate with Annie’s desire to escape her misery if albeit momentarily, with Samuel’s faith that something greater is at work, with Birdie’s recklessness and selfish decisions, and even Fred’s curious inner world and thoughts.
The Dust Bowl and the Depression were such bleak episodes in American history, devastating so many families and destroying in one swipe their humble aspirations and dreams. Because of this, I asked Rae Meadows to further illustrate on the creative process, the characters, and the inspiration behind I Will Send Rain:
You’re not a stranger to writing about difficult topics like the one portrayed in your novel, Calling Out. What made you delve into the realm of historical fiction, and the Dust Bowl in particular?
I started writing a novel fictionalizing the photographer Dorothea Lange, but it wasn’t working for me, and I found myself returning again and again to one particular photograph of hers of a young woman nursing her son. They sit in a makeshift shelter, a tarp overhead, the California sun a fierce glare behind them. They are Dust Bowl refugees from Oklahoma. The woman’s gaze is a live wire of determination, anger, and shame. She made me wonder about the life she left behind. We’re familiar with the migrant story from Steinbeck, but I wanted to know what life was like for those who stayed. I also felt that the Dust Bowl was actually quite relevant, given the effects of global warming.
Was your portrayal of the Bells inspired by a real “okie” family during the Dust Bowl era?
The Bell family was entirely fictional, but I did spend countless hours immersed in the photography archive of the Library of Congress. The photographs taken in the 1930s for the Farm Securities Administration—Dorothea Lange was among the photographers—were a source of inspiration, particularly those of women and children.
How challenging was the research process?
I loved the research process so much! I read everything I could. The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan is a great non-fiction book about the period. I also read letters, which gave me good details about what life was like on farms. And then photographs. The FSA archive has 165,000 photographs from the thirties. It’s an incredible resource. I did a ton of research and then I set it all aside. The danger is that you can research forever. At a certain point I had to create a fictional world and hope that enough period details filtered in.
Let’s talk about the characters in this novel, because they are all pretty complex. It seems that for the most part, the Bells are each living their own personal struggles, separate from each other. Would you say it’s the crisis brought on by the Dust Bowl that splits them up as a family?
I think that’s right. They are struggling already, given the drought and the failing farm, but it is the arrival of the dust that really knocks them loose. Each character starts bending away from the family in a different way: Annie towards the mayor, Samuel towards his faith, Birdie towards Cy and freedom. Fred is the least shaken, I think, but he leans more heavily on his imagination and a growing independence.
Annie throws herself pretty early on into an affair with Jack Lily, the mayor, shortly after meeting him in fact. Was this her way of escaping her own reality or perhaps an act of rebellion towards a God that she has lost faith in?
Like most women of her time and circumstances, Annie never questioned her life, her choices. It’s revolutionary for her to think, what about me? So I think that Jack Lily’s attention comes to her just at this moment, as she is worn thin by her reality. He offers escape, or at least the myth of it. But I do think that if Annie had a stronger belief in/fear of God, she wouldn’t have been as eager to entertain the possibility of a different life. She began turning away from God years before, but as Samuel veers towards a more evangelical space, Annie heads further in the opposite direction.
Religion is an important factor in the novel. While Samuel has an almost blind faith, Annie’s conversely is almost non-existent. Would you agree that this is a key element that drives them apart from each other?
Most definitely. This is such a fundamental split for Annie and Samuel. The way they see the world, which at one point was close to the same, is now quite different. It is an impassable bridge. Samuel’s faith leads him astray, into believing his impossible visions, and Annie’s faithlessness leads her astray, into imagining a life with another man. Through grief and hardship, they learn to reconcile the other’s faith or lack thereof in a kind of middle space.
Birdie is clear that she wants to avoid her mother’s fate as a rural farmer’s wife. Does her view of Annie shift when she eventually learns about her mother’s affair?
As hard as it is for Birdie to learn about her mother’s affair, I think it allows her to see her mother in a new, more expansive way. Annie becomes more human to her, and I think in a small way, it gives Birdie a firmer sense of agency to see that her mother is capable of doing something unexpected.
The narrative in I Will Send Rain is so descriptive, particularly when you refer to the dust storms and Fred not being able to breathe. How difficult was it for you to write this in such a compelling way?
I think it was really important to convey a visceral sense of what the dust storms were like for the Bells in order to make their stories work. The day in, day out struggle. When I was reading about the period I was struck by the inability to ever be free of the grit. The Sisyphean drudgery of trying to keep the dust out and clean up in a storm’s aftermath. Fred is a character close to my heart, as you might imagine. I knew his fate from the get go, and as a mother, it’s hard to write about a vulnerable child. My daughter has asthma, so it was particularly difficult to write the experience of Fred not getting enough air. But his character and story were so clear to me that in some ways, the writing of him came more easily than writing a character like Annie.
Do you think there’s a chance that readers might feel that the subplot of Annie’s relationship with Jack Lily, takes away the story from the main subject of the Dust Bowl?
Well, to me the novel is about the Dust Bowl insomuch as how it affects the lives of the characters, and through those characters I hope to show about the Dust Bowl, if that makes sense. (Richard Price has said, “The bigger the issue, the smaller you write…You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance.”) One of the things that I find interesting is how in times of disaster, a new normal takes hold and people return to themselves pretty quickly, with all the fears, hopes, and desires that make us human. Annie does what she does with Jack Lily because of the Dust Bowl setting, and her story is dependent on her straying from her marriage. In turn, this decision affects everyone else in the family. I see everything as being interconnected.
Due to his dreams about rain, Samuel seems oblivious to everything else that is happening with his family, like Annie having an affair with the mayor he professes to have a sort of kinship with, and his daughter’s frequent secret encounters with a neighbor . Why is Samuel so blind to everything around him?
As much as Samuel seems unhinged by his visions and his obsessive pursuit of building a boat, I think it gets him through the days. He, like most farmers, is desperate and sees no way forward. When the first dust storm hit in the thirties, some people believed it was the apocalypse. Faith gives Samuel purpose even to the detriment of knowing what’s going on with his own family. His all-in faith is a survival mechanism during this terrible time of destruction and loss.
What do you want readers to take away from this book?
This is such a hard question for me. I wanted to tell the story of a family. Ordinary in some ways, extraordinary in others. There is sadness and darkness in this book, but I also think there are moments of lightness and possibility. Human resilience is a remarkable thing and I wanted to honor that.