Horrific twister is catalyst for insightful novel
It was April 5, 1936, Palm Sunday, about nine o’clock in the evening. People were tidying up their kitchens, strolling home from church services, sitting in the local movie theaters, listening to their radios, talking to their neighbors. Just another ordinary spring evening.
Then, nature unleashed hell on Tupelo, Mississippi.
The tornado roared into Tupelo like a freight train, its winds estimated between 261 and 318 miles per hour, and leveled 48 city blocks, about half the town. This monster funnel of wind and rain left behind more than 200 dead and between 800 and 1,000 people injured. Because officials did not record many of the deaths of black residents, it is likely that the casualty figure was considerably higher. (The one-year-old Elvis Presley was a survivor.)
It was the fourth deadliest tornado in American history.
Some of the events of that day beggar the imagination. The wind caught up an 8-year-old black girl, swept her out of her neighborhood, and threw her dazed but unharmed through a window and into the attic of a house a mile away. Pine needles were driven like nails into the trunks of trees. There were accounts of flying cows. The savage winds carried some of the wreckage into Tennessee.
This horrific event serves as the background for Minrose Gwin’s latest novel, Promise (William Morrow, 2018, 387 pages).
We see this storm through the eyes of two women. Dovey Grand’homme is an aging black laundress who has washed the clothes and sheets of white people in the town since she was a child. Though married to Virgil, a good man, Dovey has seen hard times. The worst of her misfortunes has to do with Charlesetta, their only child. After an argument about her future with Virgil, Charlesetta runs away from home to become a singer in New Orleans, but instead dies there in childbirth. Dovey raises Dreama, her daughter’s child, a bright girl who seems destined for college until she is raped by Son McNabb, a vicious, soul-rotted young white man from a prominent family. Dovey then helps Dreama with her infant son, Promise, the product of this sexual attack.
Jo McNabb, Son’s sister, provides our other set of eyes. Jo is a teenager who has also faced her share of adversity. Her brother is abusive, her father, a judge, is distant, and her mother, a schoolteacher, suffers from post-partum depression and bouts of insanity after the birth of her baby, Tommy. Jo spends more and more of her time before the storm caring for her mother, helping with the baby, and trying to avoid her brother and his sadistic friends.
The tornado forever changes the lives of these two women and their families. Blown into Gum Pond (many bodies were found here after the tornado, and some were never recovered), Dovey makes her way to shore, finds her house completely destroyed, and sets out through the city in search of her husband, daughter, and grandson. A slight woman hardly bigger than a child, Dovey again and again faces terrible physical challenges: the disorientation brought by the leveled streets, the corpses, and the shrieks of the wounded and dying, her own wounds, and the racism of certain doctors. As Dovey desperately tries to collect her family, we come to admire her undaunted spirit and her love for Vergil, Dreama, and Promise.
Jo, too, finds herself altered in the wake of the storm. Terribly wounded by a shard of glass in her forehead, largely left to her own devices by her father, Jo fights to keep her mother alive and to care for the baby she has found beneath one of her mother’s crepe myrtle bushes. (Minrose Gwin’s grandmother lived in Tupelo during the tornado and found a dead baby beneath a crepe myrtle bush.) Jo wards off an assault from some of her dead brother’s friends, tends as best she can to her mother’s horrible broken leg, and tends to the baby whom she thinks is Tommy. In her struggles to find milk and to keep the baby warm and dry, Jo grows from a teenage girl to a young woman hardened by her fierce battles on behalf of her infant charge.
In addition to its reflections on race, courage, despair, and grit, Promise gives readers an incredible inside look at the damage this tornado did to Tupelo. Gwin writes of this storm with authority — she has clearly done her research — and couples her knowledge with a fine imagination to give us the devastation wrought by the tornado. At the back of Promise, Gwin includes 15 pages of photographs of Tupelo taken in the wake of the tornado. It is often said “A picture is worth a thousand words,” but in the case of Promise, it is Gwin’s words that truly recreate this disaster. Here, for example, she recounts Dovey’s trek from Gum Pond to her house:
“She got up and began to make her way through the dark. Buckets of rain and darkest dark. There was no finding the street and without the street, there was no finding the house. Not a single house left standing … Not a single measly tree neither, just big old holes filled with water where their roots had been. She caught herself just before falling into one.”
Unless we ourselves have lived through a disaster like this one, we forget that the survivors must often struggle to find food, water, shelter, medical care, and safety. Gwin’s accounts of the hunger and privation in this tornado’s aftermath vividly bring home these realities.