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August 8, 2016

Book Notes - Rae Meadows "I Will Send Rain"

I Will Send Rain

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Rae Meadows' I Will Send Rain is a lyrical and powerful novel of Dust Bowl life.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"An exceptional talent for creating vivid imagery and a tender regard for her characters mark Meadows' new novel. . .Similar to John Steinbeck's haunting portrait of tenant farmers in The Grapes of Wrath, but also with the gritty, bittersweet elements in Rilla Askew’s Harpsong (2007) and the poignant lyricism of Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust (1997)."

In her own words, here is Rae Meadows' Book Notes music playlist for her novel I Will Send Rain:

There is not much music in I Will Send Rain. Instead there is a lot of wind in the hot, dry, dusty, and desperate Oklahoma Panhandle of the 1930s. The novel is about a family who begins to fall apart when the dust storms arrive, but it is also very much about longing, in all its forms.

A visual complement to the novel would be the photographs taken by Dorothea Lange for the Farm Security Administration. All those weathered and weary faces. The drama of desiccated landscapes. A glimpse into the broken heart of the country. The novel, not surprisingly, has its share of sadness to it, and the playlist reflects yearning and circumspection, anchored in a strong folk/country sensibility. Nothing too fancy. It’s a soundtrack to the struggles of the Bell family. Music that’s understated but emotionally rich, for the plaintive optimism of a people who keep hoping next year will be better.

1) "Look at What the Light Did Now"/Little Wings (Light Green Leaves)

Like a dead tree that's dry and leaving/Look at what the light did now/Play it on me with grief and grieving/Look at what the light did now/I would finally fall to pieces/Look at what the light did now

As a novelist, I might say the refrain of this song is what I do. Look, and look again. This stripped down song is melancholic without being maudlin and I like its repetition, its insistence on noticing the beauty of the natural world and its necessary decay. In the novel, a connection to place ties the characters to Mulehead, and the memories of the one-time life and beauty of the land haunts them.

2) "Orphan Girl"/Gillian Welch (Revival)

I am an orphan on God's highway/But I'll share my troubles if you go my way

This song is has a more literal link my last novel (Mercy Train) but it carries through to I Will Send Rain in the character of Birdie, who, by the end of the book, becomes her own kind of orphan. Folk music is a natural accompaniment to the time and region I wrote about. I love Welch’s modern folk style, the clarity of her voice, the rural evocativeness, the religious overtones. Simple, but never simplistic. It makes me think about Birdie leaving her family at the end of the novel.

3) "Dry Lightning"/Bruce Springsteen (The Ghost of Tom Joad)

Well the piss yellow sun/Comes bringin' up the day/She said "ain't nobody gonna give nobody/What they really need anyway.”

I’m an unabashed Bruce Springsteen lover. This song comes from the The Ghost of Tom Joad album, which, of course, is a reference to Steinbeck, appropriate given the novel’s subject. When I made a book trailer I imagined it to this song—it just feels tonally so right—even though I sadly can’t use it publicly. The mesquite plain, the quiet guitar beneath Springsteen’s pained voice, the disillusionment, the memories of a better time. Yes.

4) "This Land Is Your Land"/Woody Guthrie (The Asch Recordings)

In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple/By the relief office, I'd seen my people/As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking/Is this land made for you and me?

Guthrie, from Oklahoma, spent time with migrant farmers and sings about the dust clouds rolling in verse two of this most famous song. The anger and defiance of “This Land Is Your Land”—written in response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”—is mixed with beauty and heartache, hammered home with the devastating final verse that he wrote but didn’t record. Guthrie’s telltale voice and guitar perfectly evoke Dust Bowl Oklahoma. I sing this song to my younger daughter every night before she falls asleep.

5) "Railroad Wings"/Patti Griffin (Children Running Through)

This emptiness has followed me like a cold blue sky/And it has not been easy for you/There's things I'll never tell you till the day I die/Things I've done I can never undo

This is an intimate song seeped in regret. It almost sounds like a lullaby if not for the lyrics. I hear it as being about loneliness in a marriage, and things unspoken between two people together a long time. When the dust storms arrive in the novel, they wreak havoc, both outside and in. The Bell family comes unraveled. Each of them has secrets, and I like this song’s quiet confession that there are things never told. Listening to it takes me right into the mindset of Annie.

6) "Hands on the Wheel"/Willie Nelson (Red Headed Stranger)

I looked to the stars/Tried all of the bars/And I've nearly gone up in smoke/Now my hands on the wheel/Of something that's real/And I feel like I'm goin' home

Of course Willie Nelson is on the playlist. He sings of home and landscape and about how livin' is just something I do—all of which resonate for the characters in the book. Nelson’s unshowy guitar and swooping country harmonica and truth-telling voice come together in this old-fashioned song that was part of the 1975 Red Headed Stranger western concept album. Even though it’s from forty years later, “Hands on the Wheel” would seem perfectly at home on the radio at Ruth’s, the town bar in Mulehead.

7) "Give a Man a Home"/Ben Harper (Fight for Your Mind)

Have you ever lost your belief/Watching your faith turn to grief

Samuel, the father in the book, was a difficult character to write because he wrestles with his faith in a way that leads him down an extreme path. I wanted him to be believable for this specific story, even if on the surface building a boat in a veritable desert seems unhinged. He asks a lot of questions of God, and this spare, dark song felt like it could have come from Samuel himself.

8) "Little Wing"/Neil Young (Hawks and Doves)

All her friends call her Little Wing/But she flies rings around them all/She comes to town when the children sing/And leaves them feathers as if they fall/She leaves them feathers as if they fall

This Neil Young song is slight at just two minutes long. The barest of instrumentals, a fragile melody, whimsical lyrics. It captures young Fred’s innocence and imagination, as well as his sister Birdie’s desire for freedom. And it breaks my heart a little bit.

9) "Good Woman"/Cat Power (You Are Free)

I want to be a good woman/And I want, for you to be a good man/This is why I will be leaving/And this is why, I can't see you no more.

Who better to sing about a divided heart than Chan Marshall? Annie is caught between wanting to be a good wife, a good woman, and her desire for Jack Lily and the different kind of life that he offers. This song is drenched in sadness. Marshall’s haunting, velvety voice gets down deep to Annie’s turmoil.

10) "Yellow Ledbetter"/Pearl Jam (Lost Dogs)

And I know and I know/I don't want to stay/I don't want to stay/I don't want to stay

I have no idea what this song is about. Reading the lyrics doesn’t help at all. But the emotion of the song is barely contained. There is wistfulness and anguish to Eddie Vedder’s voice, and a poignant soul to the Jimi Hendrix-inspired guitar. I think of this song in relation to the Bells’ grief, a wailing lament. A winter interlude after tragedy.

11) "The Wind"/Cat Stevens (Teaser and the Firecat)

I listen to the wind, to the wind of my soul/Where I'll end up, well I think only God really knows

I Will Send Rain has moments of real darkness. But underneath is a thrumming human spirit. “The Wind” is a lovely wisp of a song. The vengeful wind of the novel is reclaimed as something soft and giving. I hope for a gentle space for these characters. A little uplift as we send them on their way.

12) "Only in the Past"/The Be Good Tanyas (Blue Horse)

Colors streak the sky we laugh and we cry/And we dance in the cool grass with the
fireflies/And we dance in the cool grass sunset birds/Sweet sweet music swallow our words/You set sail and you left this town/Run away, run away, you're so far from me now/So far from me now

This bluesy/bluegrass/folk song is the roll credits song. When I visited Boise City, Oklahoma, the Panhandle town I fictionalized in the novel, I found a stark and beautiful windswept landscape where flat grassland extends indefinitely in every direction. I found an isolated, dying town, whose residents have fierce love for where they live, and carry the weight of nostalgia for what once was and what will never be again. “Only in the Past” has an elegiac quality, but its energetic rhythm and hooky chorus give it hope. The End.

Rae Meadows and I Will Send Rain links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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