In the town of Mulehead, Oklahoma, Annie Bell and her sharecropper husband, Samuel, gather with their 15-year-old daughter Birdie and mute young son Fred. After nineteen years, the Bells have made a living out of communing with the flat Oklahoma landscapes. But as the drought goes on, they’re finding it harder to stretch their means. While Samuel worries about the harvest--the kernels of wheat “still as small and hard as tacks”--Annie spends her days concerned about Birdie’s lack of urgency and her inability to see what needs to get done.
A daydreamer and wayward spirit, Birdie meets for secretive assignations with a handsome local boy
named Cy. Birdie--with her willful and uncontrollable natures--knows what she is doing is a “sin,”
but she loves Cy and she seems sure that Cy loves her. With her head on his chest, Birdie smells Cy’s dirt and hay and sweat, this connection with him causing her to dream yet again of escaping from Mulehead and all the hardships that have come to characterize so much of her life.
Annie sees Birdie’s fantasies as a “part of being young”, when life is still “full of possibility.” Annie is a loyal, steadfast, hard-working woman who loves her husband, yet for just one moment she is also willing to consider another type of love. Like her daughter’s secretive connection to Cy, Annie is drawn to Jack Lily, Mulehead’s newly-minted town mayor.
Perhaps because he’s the antithesis of Samuel, Annie finds herself deeply attracted to Jack and his refined city ways. As Jack continues to court Annie’s affections, her bourgeoning lust for him increases this tight “coil of restlessness” growing inside her.
Meadows wraps her tale around the private longings of Annie and Birdie, and to the more profound landscapes, that of sweeping Dust Bowl sadness and the Great Depression of the early 1930s. The author beautifully captures the inherent desperation of so many families, their pain and visceral angst. Everyone in Mulehead is hurting, their livelihoods stagnating
with the years of drought and economic hardship. Many farmers, including the Bells’ neighbors, the Woodrows, have walked away from generations of farming to seek a future in much more forgiving places such as California and Colorado. The townsfolk left behind are mostly resilient, quietly willing to latch onto any sign of hope, especially from a man who arrives from the neighboring town of Amarillo, promising to bring rain by shooting dynamite into the air. At first Pastor Hardy tells them they’re all “sinners” for believing in such hocus-pocus, and many of the farmers are skeptical of this man and the way he peddles optimism.
Samuel certainly believes that rain will come. Visited nightly be dreams of a ferocious storm, Samuel is sure that he is being tested. Buoyed by a sense of purpose, and with the help of Fred, Samuel builds a giant
ark in order to protect his family from the great apocalypse that he’s positive is going to come: “this place we’re in now, if God
isn’t punishing us for our sins, could it be a test then?” Between the giant dusters sweeping across the land, coating everything in dirt, Samuel begins to act out his biblical prophecies while Birdie must acknowledge the consequences of her actions.
Using the limitless Oklahoma plains as her theatrical backdrop, Meadows frames her dramatic novel around the notion of love and how private heartache can eventually manifest itself “like a deep and tangled knot.” Annie worries about Fred’s cough, dust-driven asthma that refuses to cede its grip, while Birdie’s teenage bravado collapses under abandonment. Under pressure, Annie finds herself growing more remote, “edging herself just out of Samuel’s reach.” Annie recalls lying with Jack on the mattress in the Woodrows' abandoned house, and how his hands touched her in a way that mostly left her blushing but also sometimes disgusted. Jack’s entreaties give Annie temporary solace from the heat and wind that bears down on her and her family every day.
Meadows moves between Samuel, Birdie, Annie, and Fred’s voices in a delicate
and heartbreaking balancing act. In this battle against the forces of nature, Birdie refuses to be ingrained with the fatalistic aura of her mother, who deals with life's disappointments with desperate world-weariness. When tragedy strikes, Annie
thinks back to when she was young and her life's choices had not yet been made. Meadows maintains all of her characters’ distinctive and unique voices, these proud and hearty people who have been shaped, scarred, and inevitably bound together by the harshness of this unforgiving land.