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March 6, 2018

Book Notes - Meghan Kenny "The Driest Season"

The Driest Season

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 Jesmyn Ward, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Meghan Kenny's novel The Driest Season is an assured and evocative debut.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"[An] impressive debut novel…Kenny’s thoughtful, finely crafted work is an eloquent reminder that the breadth of a world matters less than the depth of a character."

In her own words, here is Meghan Kenny's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel The Driest Season:

Writing this novel was a sensory experience for me in creating the setting, mood, and atmosphere of rural farmland in Boaz, Wisconsin in 1943, so when I thought of music that reflected the story, the place, and the characters’ feelings, I found myself leaning toward moody music for this playlist.

“Who We Want to Be – Soundtrack Mix” by Tom Day

The novel opens with fifteen year old Cielle finding her father hanging in their barn on a summer afternoon in June of 1943 during a drought in Boaz, Wisconsin. It’s almost of an out of body experience for her as she considers what to do, and who to tell about her father’s suicide. There’s an eerie stillness to the farm, her mother’s in shock in the bathtub, and no one else in the world knows this news except for her. Even when she picks up her older sister, Helen, and they drive to their neighbor’s house, the Mitchell family, she can’t say the words out loud, because to say them would make it real. She helps Mr. Mitchell bring in two horses, and she finds Ginger, the American quarter horse mare she usually rides. Cielle led her up the hill toward the gate, toward Mr. Mitchell and the barn, where she would walk Ginger into her stall, slip off her halter, and let her lie down in darkness. This begins the weight of the confusion, sadness, and secrets she carries through much of the novel.

“Cosmic Love” by Florence and The Machine

That evening, Cielle’s mother comes to the Mitchell’s house, leaves with Mr. Mitchell, and returns an hour later announcing Cielle’s father died in a tractor accident. Cielle’s mother didn’t seem to remember talking to Cielle earlier, and her mother remains cold and distant in response to the death and toward her daughters’ grieving. Cielle’s finishing up summer school, has been taking Physics, and has been more aware of the world around her, particularly the concepts of a larger unseen universe at work, and of time and space. With the death of her father she’s asking big questions about life, its point and purpose, and the cosmic nature of why and how life unfolds: Herself and the universe expanding into nothing into something, spinning and converging, small threads pulling and connecting everything and everyone that lived and had ever lived.

“Canon in D Major for 3 violins and bass” by Anna Moor, Lana Ross & Andrei Krylov
Cielle plays the violin. She plays Canon in D Major for her extended family when they’re back at the farmhouse for lunch after her father’s viewing at the funeral home when. As she’s playing, the dry, hot weather shifts quickly and a tornado comes—one more disaster that dismantles their sense of normal. While the family is in the basement for safety, her mother is distraught, and takes out a note, which Mr. Mitchell whisks away as he goes upstairs to check the damage form the tornado that’s passed. Cielle follows him and demands the note, which he hands over; it’s the note her father left behind. I’ve always loved this song, as overrated as it might be, for its bittersweet melody. As Cielle plays she thinks, This is the sound of sadness, this is how the living remember the dead.

“Nightswimming” by REM

That evening, Helen drags Cielle to meet friends at the lake to drink beer. Cielle knows the truth of what happened to her father and Helen does not, and they are grieving differently. Helen wants to be distracted and looks forward to leaving home to go to college at the University of Wisconsin in the fall. Cielle wants answers and to process her loss, and feels she’s being left behind to hold her mother and the farm together. The sisters end up in the lake in the dark, needing to be away from their friends who keep talking about their father’s death. She floated, connected to her sister, weightless, darkness below and darkness above, save the distant glimmer of the stars’ long-gone light reaching them.

“Begin” by Peter Broderick
The burial at Five Points Cemetery is on a hill above town. It’s just Cielle, her mother, her sister their grandmother, and the Mitchells in attendance. It’s the day after the tornado, which left a mess of downed trees, branches, barns, and churned up land. Cielle carries the unopened note her father left in the pocket of her dress. She wanted to know and didn’t want to know what it said.

“Here With Me” by Susie Suh, Robert Koch
Cielle is driven by her desire to know the truth about why her father killed himself and why her mother covered it up, yet she can’t bring herself to read the note, or confront anyone. The song says, Caught in the riptide, I was searching for the truth . . . Nobody knows why and nobody knows how. And like anyone who loves and desperately misses someone, she carries her father inside of her, but recognizes there may not be an answer or a version of the truth she wants to hear, as she thinks, Maybe to survive you had to be able to look beyond ugly, dark things in the world, even if it meant pretending.

“We Move Lightly” by Dustin O’Halloran
Cielle is angry and sad, and goes to the Mitchell’s house to ride Ginger. This is one of my favorite scenes. It reminds me of the time when I was nine or ten and galloped on a horse for the first time; it was one of the most powerful and exhilarating experiences I’ve had. Mrs. Mitchell wants to go on the ride too, and takes Cielle to a dirt track. Once on the track, Ginger breaks into a gallop and tears around and around the loop. Cielle has a sense of flying, of escape and power regained. Being with the horse gives her a sense of calm and lightness she hasn’t felt since her father’s death. This was freedom and power. This sunshine and this speed and this air on her face, through her hair, this live gorgeous animal running just to run, this muscle and heart and earth beneath her, was beautiful.

“Awake My Soul” by Mumford & Sons
Darren, the boy Cielle has a crush on and with whom she has her first kiss, offers a feeling of hopefulness after her loss. He is not uncomplicated, but is part of her discovering she is separate from her family as much as she is a part of it, and that others can offer love and comfort, too. She felt comforted having him there; he felt like the promise of change.

“Two of Us on the Run” by Lucius
Cielle’s sister Helen and her boyfriend, Bodie Mitchell, are both setting off to leave Boaz at the end of the summer—Helen to college and Bodie, who enlisted, leaves to train for the Air Force. It’s another loss of people she loves, although Cielle comes to understand the desire to leave, and that change and leaving are inevitable. She felt the future wide open and unknown.

“From the Morning” by Nick Drake

One morning the Amish arrive to help rebuild their barn that was destroyed by the tornado. This song has a lovely, hopefulness to it. A day once dawned and it was beautiful. . . And now we rise, and we are everywhere. And now we rise from the ground. A barn, a new beginning, a fresh start from what was lost.

“Greyish Tapering Ash” by Balmorhea
Cielle and her mother take Helen to college, and then ride the train home from Madison back to Richland Center and Boaz, to a different house and life without her father or sister. This song has a feeling of movement that I love (and sounds of a train on tracks in the background that I couldn’t resist). The end of the novel is about moving on and pushing forward physically and emotionally—not with any one answer to why anything happens, but with a clearer sense of how to be resilient and persevere. Maybe no one understood disappearance, but only knew its acute ache—the ache of missing, memory, and mystery that maybe dulls over time or maybe doesn’t . . . People survive all sorts of things, she thought, and loss is one of them.

Meghan Kenny and The Driest Season links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Ploughshares review

The National Book Review interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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