Falling to Earth [NOOK Book]


March 18, 1925. The day begins as any other rainy, spring day in the small settlement of Marah, Illinois. But the town lies directly in the path of the worst tornado in US history, which will descend without warning midday and leave the community in ruins. By nightfall, hundreds will be homeless and hundreds more will lie in the streets, dead or grievously injured. Only one man, Paul Graves, will still have everything he started the day with ––...
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Falling to Earth

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March 18, 1925. The day begins as any other rainy, spring day in the small settlement of Marah, Illinois. But the town lies directly in the path of the worst tornado in US history, which will descend without warning midday and leave the community in ruins. By nightfall, hundreds will be homeless and hundreds more will lie in the streets, dead or grievously injured. Only one man, Paul Graves, will still have everything he started the day with –– his family, his home, and his business, all miraculously intact.

Based on the historic Tri-State tornado, Falling to Earth follows Paul Graves and his young family in the year after the storm as they struggle to comprehend their own fate and that of their devastated town, as they watch Marah resurrect itself from the ruins, and as they miscalculate the growing resentment and hostility around them with tragic results.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

On a rainy March day in 1925, a tornado roared through the Midwest, cutting its path into history as the worst tornado in U.S. history. In rural Marah, Illinois, death and destruction ravaged almost every home, but one man survived, untouched by everyone else's tragedy. While others scraped through the ruins of their lives, Paul Graves still had everything: his family, his home, his business. But in the aftermath of the storm, his good fortune became his crisis. Kate Southwood's debut novel about one family's catastrophe after the catastrophe.

The New York Times Book Review - Margaux Fragoso
Kate Southwood has written an absolutely gorgeous—and completely modern—first novel about the great tornado of 1925. She has plainly modeled her fictional town, Marah, on the devastated Murphysboro, Ill., where 234 people died, and she has drawn freely on period newspapers and survivors' accounts. But in an act of wonderfully independent imagination, she has concentrated the narrative of Falling to Earth on Paul and Mae Graves, the only couple in Marah whose house is untouched, whose children are safe, who lose nothing while everyone else loses everything…Southwood's beautifully constructed novel, so psychologically acute, is a meditation on loss in every sense.
Publishers Weekly
Natural disasters are capricious and cruel, leaving some to sort through rubble while others sit comfortably by. In Southwood’s fine debut, a 1925 tornado devastates the small town of Marah, Ill., touching everyone—except for one family. On the day of the storm, the Graves children are at home, sick, their house untouched as the school collapses. Their father, Paul, holds tightly to a pole at his lumber yard, the only other building to escape unscathed. The book begins in chaos, introducing characters within and immediately after the storm: “There is no time to talk over what needs to be done.... People are where they are and their surroundings decide for them.” This sense of haphazard destiny pervades the novel, and the omniscient third-person allows Southwood tremendous latitude to investigate the Graves family from the inside out. Paul; his wife, Mae; mother Lavinia, and even toddler Homer attempt to reconcile their suspiciously charmed status. And with reconstruction underway, the community’s feelings of awe toward the lucky family gradually turns to envy as Paul sells lumber to those rebuilding, benefiting from their misfortune. Southwood grounds abstract notions of faith, community, luck, and heritage in the conflicted thoughts of her distinct and finely realized characters. Agent: Richard Parks, the Richard Parks Agency. (Mar.)
Kirkus Reviews
A tornado destroys a Midwestern town, and one family is left unscathed, only to find their troubles just beginning. It's a March afternoon, 1925, in the small town of Marah, Ill., too early for tornado season. So, when a giant twister sweeps across the area without warning, it takes a terrible toll of death and destruction. Most families lose at least one member and/or their homes. But the wife, mother and three children of Paul Graves, owner of the local lumberyard, take shelter in his providently built (and still rare in Marah) storm cellar, and Paul himself miraculously survives the storm, as do his business and employees. At first, Paul, wife Ma and mother Lavinia are part of the community rescue and salvage efforts, as well as tireless helpers during the grim aftermath: bodies are laid out on the front porch of their still-intact house, and the lumberyard builds scores of coffins. Despite the fact that the Graves family is humble, unassuming and the opposite of smug, it gradually becomes apparent that everyone else in town resents their good fortune. Even as the town is rebuilding, the Graves children are taunted in school, and Lavinia and Mae are shunned. Mae's mental health begins to waver. She doesn't understand why her husband and mother-in-law are resisting her timid suggestion that they move to California to join Paul's former partner in Graves Lumber, brother John. When his closest friend warns Paul that the townsfolk will boycott his lumber business, he is still reluctant to heed Mae's advice. By the time Paul finally realizes that he can't reverse the senseless scapegoating, it is too late: His family's sheer politeness and unwillingness to confront their detractors or one another will be their undoing. Unfortunately, all the conflict avoidance saps the novel of forward momentum, not to mention that essential ingredient of drama: the struggle against fate. A relentlessly bleak exposé of human failings with no redemptive glimmer in sight.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781609451103
  • Publisher: Europa
  • Publication date: 3/5/2013
  • Sold by: Penguin Group
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 187,781
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Kate Southwood received an M.A. in French Medieval Art from the University of Illinois, and an M.F.A. in Fiction from the University of Massachusetts Program for Poets and Writers. Born and raised in Chicago, she now lives in Oslo, Norway with her husband and their two daughters. Falling to Earth is her first novel.
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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Kate Southwood, Author of Falling to Earth

Your novel begins with the historic Tri-State Tornado of 1925, but the story that follows is fiction. What was your inspiration?

Inspiration came from a few sources, actually. First, and quite accidentally, I stumbled across information about the Tri-State Tornado online one day. It stopped me cold because I grew up in the Midwest and had somehow never heard of it. It was a massive storm that resulted in over 700 deaths—it's still on the books as the worst tornado in US history—and yet I had never heard of it. After reading survivors' accounts of the storm online and looking at archival photos, I remember thinking that it would make a really powerful story. After that, I left the idea to simmer somewhere in the back of my head for a while.

Not long afterwards, I read Ian McEwan's Atonement I was absolutely devastated by the story and found myself thinking about the idea of preventable tragedy, which led me back to the tornado. That was the point of no return for me—knowing that I wanted to find a preventable tragedy in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Little by little, I settled on the idea of one family who lose nothing in the storm, but suffer tragedy later through a series of events related to it.

My last and perhaps least obvious source of inspiration is my life as an expatriate. I live in Norway with my husband and two daughters but have never stopped being homesick for the States. I suppose spending two years writing this book was, in my mind, a convoluted yet viable way of spending time with Midwesterners in the Midwest.

Your novel is strikingly visual. What was it like to evoke a time and place that existed before you were born?

That was no chore at all. I have a particular fascination for the first half of the twentieth century, so the fact that the book had to be set in 1925 because of the date of the tornado was a plus. The research was riveting—I had to look up everything from Model T transmissions, to when the squeegee was invented, to late 19th century funerary practices. More importantly, though, if the novel seems visual, it's the result of the way I think.

I read somewhere once that certain people see colors when they listen to music, that different notes are unfailingly represented by different colors in their minds. Other people, like me, see their memories and the things they imagine as if they are happening, like watching a movie. I was completely surprised to learn that seeing what you're thinking was not universal, but I understood that given a choice between seeing colors or seeing pictures, my particular quirk was the better fit for a writer.

I rarely write anything before I've seen it in my head, and I've often felt as if I'm literally standing just behind my characters in a room while they're talking, or walking beside them on the sidewalk, seeing exactly what they see as they see it. Once the novel was finished, the effect was exactly like memory; as if the characters and the town were real people and places I'd known, rather than my own inventions.

The three central characters of the novel—the adult members of the Graves family—are fairly different from one another. Were there any particular challenges in writing from their different perspectives?

These three characters—Paul Graves, his wife Mae, and his mother Lavinia—gave me both the sexes and two generations to work with, so I had to pay close attention to things like speech patterns for each as well as the way men and women would have lived their lives in the 1920s. Remembering that each character is in orbit around the family home helped. Paul, as a man and a business owner, would have had the larger and more varied orbit, while his wife and mother would have stayed closer to home, running the household and caring for the children. There is also a good deal of overlap among the characters, which simplified things for me. They have lived on the same basic patch of earth all their lives, so they're formed by the same cultural influences and have similar values.

Going back to the business of thinking visually, I knew very clearly what each one of them looked like in my mind, I knew what their voices sounded like, and those things helped me to establish them as characters. Aspects of their personalities are partly borrowed from people I've known, and partly invented. I had very little trouble writing from Paul's and Lavinia's perspectives—I suppose I always kept in mind the things I had in common with them: Paul, like me, has young children, and Lavinia, although she is a generation older than I am, is a woman and a parent, as well.

Mae, on the other hand, gave me quite a lot of trouble. I thought at first that that was strange because, on paper, she and I had the most in common, and then I realized that it was precisely because she is so much like me that she was giving me trouble. I suppose I just embraced that fact rather than try to distance myself from it, and that helped me to find Mae's particular voice.

Why do you bring Little Homer back in the epilogue?

Little Homer is my favorite of all the characters. I originally intended to frame the novel entirely around his being invited back to Marah as an old man to speak at a memorial ceremony marking an important anniversary of the storm and for the narrative to come from his memories, but I abandoned that fairly quickly in favor of the present tense narrative told mostly from adult perspectives. Still, Little Homer stood out for me and demanded an important place in the story. I always knew that, of all the family, he would have the closest and most important connection to his mother, Mae, and that made me interested to find out what happened to him, and how it all played out in his life.

In the end, I decided to keep things simple and just have him travel to see the old house because he is keeping a promise to himself. He doesn't remember specifically that his grandmother, Lavinia, put the idea in his head, and it doesn't matter. He's 85 years old and he knows this is his last chance to come back and see the house that his father built, he's put a flower in his lapel because he remembers that his mother loved flowers, and he's standing there, leaning on his cane, because he knows that visiting the house is the only real way he has to visit his mother. I see him there on that street corner very clearly.

What's the most interesting thing about novels for you as a reader?

Psychology, always psychology. I don't think writers can know what characters will do next until they understand what they're not doing and what they did before. When I read, I'm always trying to figure out what a character is really thinking, despite what he or she is doing or saying at the moment. What is hidden or repressed, what is exaggerated, what have they not yet admitted to themselves? What does each character want, what's in it for them? What is the nugget of truth they will never ever speak aloud? It's a game for me, really, and I think it's great fun.

The three great writer/psychologists who always jump out at me first are Jane Austen and Charlotte and Emily Bront ë. Jane Austen drives me a little crazy in that she never deals with life after the wedding, but she is at least wickedly funny on the way to the wedding, and seems to have enjoyed throwing lots of very different people with very different agendas together in rooms to see what would happen. The Bront ës, on the other hand, are very dark but really unparalleled as observers of human behavior.

Who have you discovered lately?

I've just read two books by Andrew Miller, Pure and Ingenious Pain [A Spring 1997 Discover Great New Writers Selection. -Ed.]. I don't often read historical fiction, and I was truly impressed by the immediacy of these stories. Both books are set in the 18th century, and in his hands it felt effortless and entirely plausible. It didn't seem so much that he had successfully recreated 18th century France and England as that he used a unique combination of logic and daring to make it seem that we and the stories simply were there.

I took my time and savored both books. I was tempted to gobble them like they were boxes of chocolates, but the stories and Miller's gorgeous, startling language dazzled me, and I read slowly. That's the best compliment I can pay any writer.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 17, 2013

    Wild Weather

    Fiction based on a true event. A severe tornado demolishes a small town on the Plains. One family is spared including their house and business.
    How does a family cope with extremely good luck and an envious town?

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted May 17, 2013

    Great Read!

    Great characters scripted in a heart-warming and, sometime heart-wrenching story. Makes you really think about why things happen to some and not others....

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 19, 2013

    Fantastic novel, beautifully written. 

    Fantastic novel, beautifully written. 

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2013

    I liked the novel very much. But since it was based on a histor

    I liked the novel very much. But since it was based on a historical event, I expected the book would tell more about the story and portray more about the devastation of the town and the people. I found it bit "over the line" in terms of the manner in which seemingly the entire town turned on this one family who escaped any injury or damage.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 30, 2013

    Sad story

    A very sad story about a long forgotten incident.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 3, 2013

    Magnificent writing. Reminds me of Marilyn Robinson's Gilead.

    Magnificent writing. Reminds me of Marilyn Robinson's Gilead. Heart-wrenching, yes and filled with grace.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 16, 2013

    Falling to earth

    This book was so sad that halfway through l quit reading. I skipped to the end and even the ending was sad. The story was very believable and you could see how this could happen in a small town.

    0 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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