cover image Peculiar Savage Beauty

Peculiar Savage Beauty

Jessica McCann. Perspective Books, $24 (422p) ISBN 978-0-9994602-0-7

The heart of McCann’s gripping, atmospheric novel, set in 1934 during the Dust Bowl, is an intrepid government geologist, Rosa Jean “RJ” Evans, who returns to her drought-stricken hometown to help farmers stop soil erosion and restore the land. The environmental devastation and human suffering are shocking to RJ, yet many of the residents of Vanham, Kans., do not welcome the interference of a government scientist, or a woman at that. RJ sets up soil experiments, gradually persuading some farmers to adopt her methods, while easing into friendships with brilliant, misunderstood Woody, who becomes her assistant, and Ethel, the owner of the local diner. RJ also falls in love with Harvey Clay, who wants to marry RJ and move to Wichita for a new life, yet he forces her to choose between marriage and her career. The dust storms depicted are graphic and terrible, none more so than the “black blizzard,” based on 1935’s Black Sunday. McCann is especially good at using the ever-present dust—gritty, dirty, seeping into homes, and infecting characters with “dust pneumonia”—to depict its devastation on humans, livestock, crops, and homes. McCann’s Dust Bowl saga meshes a seminal event in American history with a suspenseful plot and insightfully etched characters. (BookLife)