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Falling to Earth

Falling to Earth

by Kate Southwood
Falling to Earth

Falling to Earth

by Kate Southwood


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A “poignant [and] powerful” novel about a 1920s Midwestern community in the aftermath of a devastating tornado (The New Yorker).

In March 1925, the worst tornado in the nation’s history will descend without warning on the small town of Marah, Illinois. 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.
This “absolutely gorgeous” novel 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 (The New York Times). They watch helplessly as Marah tries to resurrect itself from the ruins and as their friends and neighbors begin to wonder how one family, and only one, could be exempt from terrible misfortune. As the town begins to recover, the family miscalculates the growing resentment and hostility around them with tragic results, in an “extraordinarily moving” portrayal of survivor’s guilt and the frenzy of bereavement following a disaster (Financial Times).

“All the big themes are here—chance, fate, loyalty, revenge, guilt, jealousy . . . Inspired by actual events surrounding the 1925 Tri-State tornado, the worst in U.S. history, Southwood’s poignantly penetrating examination of the psychic cost of survival is breathtaking in its depth of understanding.”—Booklist (starred review)

“What’s most exciting about Southwood’s debut is her prose, which is reminiscent of Willa Cather’s in its ability to condense the large, ineffable melancholy of the plains into razor-sharp images.”—The Daily Beast

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609450915
Publisher: Europa Editions, Incorporated
Publication date: 03/05/2013
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About 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.

Read an Excerpt


Mae pulls the lace curtain aside to look out the window and up at the sky. "It's awful dark out there," she says.

"Come away from that window," Mae's mother-in-law, Lavinia, says. "I'm not afraid of any rainstorm. If we were back out on the farm, I might be persuaded, but this is different. A town is different than wide open spaces."

"A funnel's a funnel. It doesn't know the difference between the country and a town," Mae says.

"Yes, but you don't hear town folk talking about funnels, now do you? It's the people out on farms who see them."

Lavinia pulls her glasses down on her nose and tilts her head back to look at her work. "Hand me another dark blue," she says to her granddaughter Ruby and points to the basket of wool scraps on the floor beside her chair. Ruby spins around on her knees and takes a long scrap off the top. "Like this?"

"Thank you, snookie. I bet you're not sorry to be missing school." Lavinia smiles at Ruby over her glasses and waits for Ruby to smile back at her. "I know I'd hate to have to walk home in this weather. Do you want to try braiding with me?"

Ruby looks at the basket and the braided wool snaking from Lavinia's lap onto the floor. She wrinkles her nose in answer. "I'm bored. Why couldn't I just go back to school today?"

"Land sakes, child! You'd rather be out in this weather than home with us?" Lavinia is laughing, inwardly gratified that Ruby would rather be at school.

"You know you can't go back until your scabs are falling off," Mae says. "Chicken pox is catching."

"But I feel fine!"

"You don't look fine. Go look in the mirror. They'd send you home right away if you tried."

"Why'd Ellis have to go and get dumb chicken pox anyway?"

"It wasn't my fault!" Ruby's brother Ellis says, "Whole bunch of kids got 'em."

"Well, now you'll be done with it, all three of you," Lavinia says. "All done with the polka dots. Why, I should be calling you Dot now, shouldn't I? And Ellis, you could be Spot."

Lavinia sees that Ruby is annoyed by the joke, but five-year-old Little Homer is smiling, waiting for her to name him.

"Ruby, don't look at your Gran like that," Mae says.

"Oh now, I didn't mean to hurt your feelings, snookie. You just go on with your marbles." She turns to Little Homer and says, "What do you want to be? There's not much left after Dot and Spot."


"Dot, Spot, and Poke?"

Little Homer nods, smiling at her and waiting for her to get the joke, then laughs with her when Lavinia slaps her knee and yells, "Poke-a-dot!"

"I don't want to be Spot," Ellis says, "Sounds like a dog."

"Well, fine, you and Ruby can just be Ellis and Ruby. Right, Poke?" She winks at Little Homer, who nods again, pleased that he's the only one playing the game.

Lavinia laughs at Ellis, stretched out flat on his belly, half under the davenport. "Lose one?"

"Got it." Ellis sets the marble with the others he has clustered outside the ring of twine and picks up his shooter. "How many twisters have you seen, Grandma?"

"Me? Oh, I thought I saw one once. Far off in the distance, though, so I couldn't be sure. Grandpa Homer teased me and said I just wanted to see a real one so badly, I imagined it. I've been in plenty of storms, though, down cellar, waiting them out with a lantern. That's no fun, wondering what you'll find when you come out again." Lavinia stops braiding and sits looking at the opposite wall with her hands in her lap.

"They used to tell you to close all the windows in the house if a cyclone was coming, but then someone figured even if the funnel didn't skirt your place, the winds would blow the glass out, so they started telling us to open all the windows." She laughs and slaps her knee. "All that got us was a dirty house, I'll tell you. Why, we no more had all that black grit cleaned off of every surface before the next storm came up and we were flinging open the windows and running for the cellar again."

"You ever seen a twister, Mama?" Ellis asks.

Mae shakes her head. She has not once looked away from the window. She's exasperated by Lavinia's cheerfulness, by her refusal to do a thing as simple as look out the window.

Little Homer goes to stand with Mae and asks, "What are you looking for, Mama? What's one look like?"

"I've never seen anything but pictures, but they look like long, twisty cones, sort of bendy and fuzzy gray. They're wide at the top and skinny at the bottom where they touch the ground and stir things up." Mae draws a quick circle on the top of Little Homer's head and remembers to smile at the boy with her eyes.

"Daddy says if you want to know when there's a storm coming, you can listen for the birds and watch what they're doing," Mae continues. "If they're all twittering and fussing and the leaves on the trees start to spin so you can see their undersides, then you know a storm is coming. But if the light outside turns green and things seem kind of eerie, that's when you know you've got cyclone weather."

Mae turns back to the window, shakes her head and glowers out. If only her husband Paul were here to talk sense to Lavinia––not that he outranks his mother the matriarch, but at least then there would be two of them she'd have to listen to. "You should really have a look, Mother. I don't like this," she says.

"I can see from here, and what I see doesn't look like cyclone weather. I think we're in for a walloping thunderstorm, but we don't have to be chased down a hole like scared rabbits."

"Maybe it wouldn't hurt to go down for a little while," Ellis says. "Just a little while." He's sitting up on his knees, and he's already dropped his marbles back into their fabric bag.

"Mae, come away from that window right now. You've got Ellis spooked. It's not even the right season for it. The newspaper didn't say anything but that we'd get a good soaking today."

Mae exhales, drops the curtain and goes to sit on the davenport. It's only a little after two o'clock, and they've got every lamp in the front room on. She shakes her head again, thinking of Paul and wondering what the others will be able to see on her face. Lavinia continues her rag braiding, tying on new scraps as she reaches the ends of old ones. The room is quiet; not even the children are making any noise. Lord, if Ruby and Ellis were in school, Mae thinks. That many more to worry about.

They've never yet taken shelter down in the cellar, but this is why Paul built it, she thinks. He'd had to take a little ribbing for it down at the lumberyard when he was building the house. Overkill, they'd chuckled at him, enjoying themselves. He'd just laughed along with them and kept smiling when he explained that if he had the ground, a shovel, and the lumber to make the cellar doors, why, he figured he could spare a day's labor. The children have only ever looked into it now and then when Mae has gone down to sweep it out and check for damp. They've never ventured down; they know its purpose and somehow that's made even the boys always shudder at the dirt floor, littered as it always is with pill bugs, and at the spiderwebs stretched everywhere like sails.

The lamplight seems brighter as the sky darkens. Little Homer is the first to go to the davenport and sits right up against his mother. When Mae takes Little Homer on her lap, Ruby and Ellis go to sit on either side of her. Lavinia stops her work and they all look around the room, at the clock and the windows, without looking into each other's faces. The rain, which has been falling steadily all day, washes over the windows in sheets. The sky is black. There is a terrific crash of thunder, and they begin to hear sounds they have never heard before, and Mae says loudly, "Mother!"

When Lavinia stands, they all bolt. Mae shoves the candlesticks from the dining table into Ellis's hands and snatches the box of matches from the sideboard.

"Go, go!" she shouts at the children who run for the kitchen.

"I need an umbrella!" Ruby says. Mae pushes her toward the door, "You can have a towel later," she shouts at her, "Go!"

They run huddled in a knot around to the side of the house, shielding their eyes from the rain, soaked when they reach the storm cellar. Mae yanks at the cellar doors, holding one open and Lavinia holding the other. The children go down first, then Lavinia, then Mae, who pushes back against the wind on the doors until she is all the way down and the doors slam shut behind her, and she drops the crossbar into place. Mae strikes a match and pinches hold of it tight to stop her trembling. "Let's see how wet those candles got," she says.

"I held the wicks inside my hand, Mama," Ellis says. He holds out both candles to her. "I guess I dropped the candlesticks."

"Better the candlesticks than the candles. Good boy." Mae takes one lit candle and lets Ellis keep the other. "Let's all sit down. Are there enough crates?"

Lavinia looks up at Mae from her seat on a crate, then down again. "I'm sorry, Mae. I'm sorry," she says, shaking her head. "Lord, what if they hadn't been home sick?"

"We're all here now," Mae exhales and tries to smile. She sits down and holds Lavinia's hand in her lap.

"Not Daddy," says Ruby. "What about Daddy?"

Mae looks directly at Ruby. "You know that Daddy is downtown at the lumberyard."

"We didn't open the windows," Little Homer says.

"No," Lavinia shakes her head.

The children are frozen, too frightened to move closer to one of the women. The sound they heard while still in the house has advanced, roaring its way above them. There is a crash against the storm door, and they all scream, ducking with their arms held over their heads. Ellis drops his candle, and in the weak light left from the candle Mae is still holding, she sees his terrified face. Ruby is crying. Lavinia has Little Homer's face pressed into the front of her dress as if she can shield him by blocking his sight. Mae reaches out her arms, and Ruby and Ellis come to her immediately. She blows out her candle and drops it so that she can hold both children tight against her. In the darkness, Lavinia cries, "Dear Lord! Oh, dear Lord!" Then the roaring moves on, like a train careering over their heads. The sound recedes, and eventually even the wind seems to subside. When there is no longer any sound except rain on the cellar doors, the children hold utterly still, waiting to see what will come next.

"I don't think we can go out yet," Mae says. "We could still be in the eye of it."

"What if Daddy came home? He can't get down here with that bar over the door!"

"Ruby, hush. He wouldn't have tried to come home in this. He'd have known he couldn't make it in time."

"He could come home quick in the truck, couldn't he?"

"No," Mae says quietly, as much to warn Ruby against further questions as to answer her. "It's not safe to drive in storms like this, he knows that. He'll have found shelter at the yard."

Mae can feel the fear in the children's wire-hard bodies. I'd like to know where he was meant to find shelter, myself, Mae thinks. Not in the store, with those windows along the front; nor yet in the yard, among the stacks and rows of lumber.

"You all remember how strong and smart your daddy is," Lavinia says. "He can out-think a storm, easy. And imagine how glad he is right now that we had this cellar to go to." Her voice is decisive, but she can't entirely mask the quake she means to conceal.

When the rain finally stops coming in between the cellar doors, Mae rises and touches each of the children. Her eyes close, and she breathes in and out rhythmically, preparing herself. She lifts the crossbar and pushes against the doors, but cannot budge them. She pushes again, braced with one foot on the lowest step, and still they will not open.

"Something's fallen across the doors. Probably that crash we heard." Mae labors against the doors, shoving with her arms locked straight above her head. A gap opens between them as she pushes up, and they can see a tree trunk lying across them. Lavinia pulls the children back as far as she can. Debris rains in on Mae's head, and she thrusts against the doors but can't dislodge the tree trunk. Finally, Ellis pushes with his mother; they bounce against the doors with their shoulders and backs until they hear a scraping sound on the opposite side. "It's starting to give," Mae pants, turning to thrust at the doors again with her hands, bit by bit, rolling the tree trunk off the sloping doors and onto the ground. Mae leans against the doors, gulping air, and pushes one side up and open so that the children can run up out of the cellar. She reaches a hand down again for Lavinia, to help her out and over the fallen tree.

"Where in the world ..." Lavinia says, looking around. All of their trees are still standing, festooned now with debris and broken branches.

"It's not ours," Mae says.

Debris and dirt are still swirling in the air around them. They shield their eyes, looking around, too shocked by what they see to move.

"Oh, Lord, Oh, Lord, Paul! Where are you?" Mae moans, clutching her mouth with one hand, her stomach with the other.

Ruby runs back with a metal object in her hand. She holds it up, a long black thread trailing from it. "What is it, Mama?" she asks.

"It's the shuttle from a sewing machine ..." Mae says in a murmur. She takes the shuttle, turning it over and over in her hand, as if by touching it, it will tell her something more. She feels dread rising from her gut and registering in her face. She hands the shuttle to Lavinia. "The thread's still in it."

The children pick their way around the side yard, looking for wind-borne treasures under the branches lying everywhere. Lavinia is shaking, mumbling, "I never ... I never ..." She turns to look at the house, knowing, feeling at first glance that it is whole. The roof is littered with branches and twigs, the clapboards and windows are smeared with mud, but the house is whole.

"Saints be praised, Mae! Look at the house!"

"Shhh, Mother," Mae says, holding out a hand. "What's that sound?"

A woman is moaning across the street somewhere behind them, and as Mae and Lavinia turn to look, the moaning turns to screaming. Their neighbor Alice Duttweiler is there, staggering toward her house, which has gone all wrong. Turned facing another direction, one whole side missing, like a doll's house, to show what's inside. Alice sinks to her knees in front of the house and then rises to run back to the other side of the yard, her arms held out in front of her like she's trying to catch something. Alice's cries land in Mae's gut like fists. She feels Lavinia take hold of her arm. "Oh, sweet Jesus," she says with her hand over her mouth, "The baby."

Downtown, the cloud has passed, but the air is still choked with dirt. Paul pulls himself up slowly from the ground, still gripping the pole he'd taken hold of when the cloud was almost on top of him. His arms and hands ache from gripping the pole so tightly for so long. He's looked out the lumberyard windows at that very telegraph pole day in and day out for years, and now both he and the pole are still standing, the imprint of the pole on the side of his face. He looks at his hands, held out in front of him. He sees them but can't feel them, skin and shirtsleeves mud-black, his arms shaking. He touches his head, his neck, and holds out his hands again to see if there's blood. Retching on the air he's breathing, he begins to look around.

Everything is happening slowly, so slowly. Live wires dangle from utility poles, twitching in the wind. Buildings that stood solid only minutes before are now so much rubble and kindling. The trees left standing are choked with garments, newspaper, even the limbs of other trees that the black branches have snatched out of the wind. The sounds of wailing begin to reach him. Voices screaming, calling out names or crying for help. A blackened figure staggers in the middle of the street, a woman with her long hair clumped at the back of her head, the remnants of her clothes trailing.

Paul blinks as if he is waking. He'd gone outside before the cloud hit, heard it coming, seen it boiling along the ground. He'd been frozen where he stood, knowing the cloud would be on him, around him, before he could get back inside the store. He'd taken hold of the telegraph pole next to him then, and let himself fall prone to its base while he'd turned his face into his arm and hugged the wooden pole.

He'd been facing into the cloud and he'd known that that posture might save him. The wind had raised him off the sidewalk and snapped him hard like a flag, but he'd held tight, waiting for it to set him down. Now he turns, expecting to see the lumberyard in ruins behind him, but it's whole. The storefront, at least, of Graves Lumber is whole, and so is the Liberty Theater beside it, though their fronts are smothered in mud.


Excerpted from "Falling to Earth"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Kate Southwood.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


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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