Monday, August 1, 2011

Sandra Brown, Yes, Sandra Brown

A typical Monday at my library means that friends and co-workers are like ships passing in the night. Scores of book carts are waiting to be shelved. Meetings and programs are lined up from dawn til dusk. You better hope nothing goes wrong with the lights, the AC, bugs of any kind, plumbing, you get the picture. So, it was delightful that my pal Andrea and I passed each other in the circulation office; she coming off the desk, me going on. She had a Jude Devereaux paperback in hand and asked me on the QT if she should think any less of her doctor for reading Devereaux.
Cracked me up. My immediate, snobby reaction was, hell yeah. Then I rethought the fact that I was planning to blog about Sandra Brown tonight and squashed that snobby voice in my head. No, Andrea, your poor doctor is probably stressed to the max and needs escapism in the evening. She agreed and we both felt good that we had addressed our elitist attitude toward literature. With whom will I play these little pas de deux when she is gone?

I wrote the other day about why we read but one of the motivations I forgot to mention was peer pressure. There's nothing like having someone whose opinion you respect ask you if you're familiar with such and such a book and having to hang your head in shame. Of course, librarians have the perfect excuse. We DON'T HAVE TIME! But when two members of our book discussion group both said that they wanted to talk about Sandra Brown's novel Rainwater, I'll admit I looked at them with crooked eyebrows.

Still, I remembered when Ms. Brown and her husband attended our reading festival several years ago and I had the honor of introducing her to the crowd. We were surprised and disappointed at the attendance, maybe 200 people in a room that holds 500. She was undaunted and unfazed. She gave a beautiful, heartfelt presentation talking more about the joy of writing than about any one particular book. Check your local catalog if you doubt her prolific output. She had a fan in me forever.

Rainwater is not her usual genre. As a matter of fact, Booklist calls it a huge leap from Ms. Brown's romantic suspense. One might even call it a parable since it has elements of a biblical tale of good vs. evil, a David vs. Goliath if you will. In a small Texas town, Gilead, during the depression years, a young Ella Barron, abandoned by her husband, perhaps over the birth of their son with a rare form of autism once called "idiot savant," (think Dustin Hoffman in Rainman), struggles to make ends meet as  the owner of a rooming house.

The local doctor asks Ella if she'd be willing to take in an old friend of his who's looking for a peaceful place to rest while he's being treated for a terminal disease. David Rainwater is like no other man Ella has ever met. As you read you must keep reminding yourself that we're back in the early 1930's, that morees are different from today's and that Ella's reputation depends upon her circumspection in her interactions with any of her boarders. She fights hard, stubbornly against her attraction to Mr. Rainwater.

Mr. Rainwater, ever the gentleman, isn't having it. He takes an interst in Ella's son, an instance that starts the ball rolling for Ella to see him as more than just a withdrawn little boy who throws tantrums. Researching his disease, she finds that Solly may have more going on in his head than anyone would have believed and begins to hope that he will one day be able to learn, to be on his own, maybe even to thrive.

Beyond the personal story of Ella and David is the backdrop of troubling times where once comfortable farmers are losing their lands to foreclosure, their crops to the dustbowl, and their animals to a government program that pays the farmers to destroy their cattle even though people are starving in the shanties on the edge of town. Racism is in full bloom and the good old boys who make up the police department are threatened when a new charismatic black minster comes to town with an uncanny ability to instill pride and hope into those who have had little of either.

David Rainwater is a man with, it would seem, little to lose. He invests himself in the townspeople's struggles, he organizes what might now be called neighborhood watches, he stands against the cruelty of the government men and the local bullies who would keep food from the mouths of the starving children.
Yet all while it's happening the reader has a constant feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach. Hoping against hope we understand that it will take a tragedy of epic proportions to set the town of Gilead right. I won't peek at the ending, though I want to very badly. Kudos to Sandra Brown for a thoughtful novel with enough twists to keep this fussy reader on edge.

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