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Heat Lightning

by Helen Hull

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1930s photograph of a house in Cassopolis Michigan, probably very like the one in Heat Lightning.

PREFACE BY PATRICIA MCCLELLAND MILLER
352pp
ISBN 9781903155912

Helen Hull was once a well-known American novelist and Heat Lightning, her sixth book, was a Book-of-the-Month Club Selection for April 1932. The plot is simple: Amy Norton comes home for a week’s visit to her hometown in Michigan (the town is unnamed but must owe a lot to Albion, where Helen Hull grew up): ‘Now that she was back in the town of her childhood, standing on a corner across from the village triangle of green, a small pyramid of luggage at her feet, Amy’s one clear thought, over the fluttering of unimportant recognitions, was “Why on earth have I come?”’ Her husband has gone on holiday without her, her two children are at summer camp, and she is hoping to work out why she is unhappy. She looks with detached eyes at every member of the Westover family, all of whom live within striking distance of their old home; and, having been away for so long, is able to observe her female relations with fresh eyes and to see that ‘each of them lived true to her own code, without conflict or rebellion. And I – Amy moved restlessly – I don’t know what my code is.’ Yet, over the course of the sultry summer week, with flashes of lightning never far away, she starts to understand herself better and to have a new insight into the lives of her relations: the matriarchal ‘Madam Westover’ her grandmother; her parents Alfred and Catherine; her brother and sister Ted and Mary, who has just given birth to another child; and her aunt and her two unmarried children. As Amy comes to realise, the Westover family, into which ‘foreigners’ have married, is a microcosm of the larger society, each member with his own code, derived blindly from distant soil.’ The result, which is what Helen Hull is describing, is that ‘the individual has nothing firm upon which he can lean, nor has he even any definite way of life against which he can rebel: he is under the necessity of determining for himself how he shall act and think.’

It is the summer after the Great Crash of 1929 and, as in so many Persephone books, everything happens and nothing happens; however, a book which is simply about family life turns out to be unputdownable. ‘Although Heat Lightning focuses on domestic life,’ writes the American academic Patricia McClelland Miller in her Persephone Preface, ‘it is, at its core, a novel of ideas, even though not all of the book’s readers would have recognised it as such.’ Indeed, the book with which most Persephone readers will compare it is Dorothy Whipple’s Greenbanks. ‘Like Dorothy Whipple, Helen Hull’s perception, her clarity of expression and her ability to tease out the quiet, unspoken thoughts and fears that ripple under the surface of each of our lives is magnificent,’ wrote Rachel of Book Snob, adding, ‘it takes true skill to rivet the heart and mind while remaining within the four walls of the family home, and I can’t praise Helen Hull’s abilities enough.'

 

Endpaper

 

'Memories of the Alamo' 1929, a plain weave roller-printed silk by HR Mallinson & Co.

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Categories: Abroad    Family    America   
 

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