21 October 2011

The Storm in the Barn, by Matt Phelan

I just finished reading the graphic novel The Storm in the Barn, by Matt Phelan. It's set in Kansas during the Dust Bowl, and told through the eyes of Jack, an eleven year old boy. Jack is desperate to please his father and contribute in some way, but, as his sick sister points out, the dust has taken away his chance to grow up.

Matt Phelan's sketches are what really tell the story. In the Author's Note Phelan says, "It was the faces. Against a backdrop of a vanishing farmland, these faces stared at the camera with haunting directness." He was speaking of photography from Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, but it's his sketches that have the same effect in The Storm in the Barn.

The faces of the men who have nothing else to do but play dominoes at the town store, the faces of Jack's parents as they struggle to provide and care for three children, the faces of the town bullies after they partake in a jackrabbit drive - all of them hint at the plight of real people.

If you're looking for a way to introduce your classes to the time period, or specifically the Dust Bowl, this would be a good place to start.  You could easily challenge advanced learners to make inferences on the small changes in the pictures, and give students who are struggling another way to interact with history - all with the same book. My classes are just finishing up a unit on drawing conclusions based on evidence from the story, and I wish I had read this before they started! There are so many ways to "read between the lines" in this book.

It is an extremely fast read, as the pictures dominate the majority of it, but I found myself lingering over the subtle changes in expression as the story unfolds. What struck me the most was, of course, Jack, as he attempts to help his father. All of his attempts end with frustration and yet another feeling of uselessness.

Throughout the story we catches glimpses of Dorothy and her adventures in OZ, as well as oral traditions of American folklore. Surely these stories were playing a good tune inside Jack as he brings relief to his family and his town. The story takes a turn toward fantasy, and Jack performs quite a feat.

Planet Ham is Matt Phelan's blog.

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