Thursday, May 3, 2012
ALL THE EARTH, THROWN TO THE SKY by Joe R. Lansdale
If Delacorte Press played in March Madness, I’d pick them as a winning seed in my bracket. With Joe Lansdale’s novel All the Earth, Thrown to the Sky, Delacorte wins again.
Jack, Jane, and her younger brother Tony are orphaned in Oklahoma during the dust storms of the Great Depression. Armed with sixteen dollars and a “borrowed” Ford, they head out into the world: staying put means a slow starvation; moving out affords them at least a chance to live. Along their way, they get tangled up with bank-robbing gangsters, a slave-driving pea farmer/sheriff, and various other dubious characters. In what I’ve read so far from them, Delacorte never shies away from tackling tough issues in a respectable way. Their authors give kids adult responsibilities: Jack’s parents die in the first two pages; he’s buried them in the barn by the third page—no use wasting any time! Jack realizes that when the bank confiscates the property, the bank will own his parents’ bodies, but he says, “I had always been taught it wasn’t the body that mattered, it was the life inside it. That life was long gone now.” In my opinion, that’s tough stuff for a teenager, but it’s dealt with in an appropriate and mature way.
After losing his parents, Jack considers suicide, but decides against it, rationalizing: “I wanted to be like the heroes in books I had read about, who could stand up against anything and keep on coming.” This sentiment inaugurates a prevailing theme throughout the book: reading itself has power. Time and again, the characters, particularly Jane, compare themselves to heroes in books and draw inspiration to persevere. At one point, Jack picks up a book of poems, forming the words with his mouth, enjoying the way it feels to read; it almost works like a therapy of sorts in time of crisis. Frequently, when the trio meets new people, Jane makes up stories. When one older woman catches her in a lie, she asks Jane why she makes up stories when the truth is strange enough? Sometimes, however, the fiction is easier to bear than the facts. We see Jane accept the truth of their situation when she introduces them truthfully (and the new person dismisses it as falsehood!). Ultimately, she finds her destiny inextricably linked with her stories, but in an unexpected way: rather than making up stories, she writes down what she observes in the world around her.
Lansdale writes with an exquisite voice, giving detail and description in an Oklahoma dialect without compromising readability for young readers. For example, Jack muses about the prevalence of death: “It was the sort of thing that stunned you at the same time it made you feel as empty as a corn crib after the rats had been in it.” About Jane’s tall tales, he says, “She went on painting the barn, so to speak, when there wasn’t no need for paint, or for that matter, when the paint bucket was empty.” The affection between the three hits the reader with a poignancy. Jack develops an attraction to Jane for all the “right” reasons: she’s pretty, she has a pleasant voice, she’s smart, and she smells good. The developing romance is age-appropriate and tasteful. When a swarm of grasshoppers eats the entire backside of her pants, Jack ties what the grasshoppers left behind of his shirt around Jane's waist to cover her exposed rear end. The pair kiss twice, and although the trio spends many nights sleeping together, sex never arises as a remote possibility. While Jack and Jane’s affections for one another play an important role in their character development within the novel, the tale definitely is not a love story. The ending makes clear that growing up means moving on: Tony gets adopted by a kindly older widow, Jane finds her way as a writer out west, and Jack joins up as a carnival worker.
Lansdale’s novel serves not only as an enjoyable insight into the Great Depression through the eyes of children, but also as a timeless study of perseverance, spunk, and adolescence.