Reviewed by Wendy Hawkin
In his latest crime novel, Vancouver author, Dietrich Kalteis, offers a nail biter as dark and gritty as a Kansas duster. The story would seem apocalyptic were it not set in 1930s America. A wind of sympathy buffets the underdogs as they try to eke out a living in a dead, inhospitable land ravaged by drought, banks, and the Ku Klux Klan.
When I read the title, Call Down the Thunder, a song kicked up in my mind — “The Rainmaker” — a 1969 Americana ballad by Harry Nilssen. But, though this rainmaker’s “cobb-buster” cannon is significant, Eugene Hobbs doesn’t make much of a blast himself. He has the technology, but not the touch.
In the end, I decided the protagonist was Clara Myers, a feisty woman in her mid-twenties who wanted to be a dancer but fell for a Kansas dirt-farmer. The story chronicles Sonny and Clara’s struggle to survive outside forces, as well as their own relationship. “Been married to a man more married to the land than he is to me,” Clara tells her mother. Several years into the marriage, Clara, childless and despairing, still longs to shine centre stage.
Sonny, a third-generation Kansas farmer, who inherited the family farm, is the “everyman” of his time. While Clara wants to escape, Sonny wants to stay. The problem is, everyone else wants him gone. Between the Knighthawks of the Great Plains (KKK) and the bank, Sonny has to use his wits and his fists frequently. Willing to try anything to keep the land his daddy’s buried beneath, Sonny finds himself embroiled in a couple of cash grabs that put further pressure on his marriage.
What really draws the reader into this story is Deitrich Kalteis’s characteristic writing style. Breaking the “rules” of contemporary fiction, he twists language to keep the phrases fluid and the plot spinning. There’s a fair amount of “head-hopping” as Kalteis writes using an omniscient viewpoint — meaning, he sometimes reveals more than one character’s thoughts and feelings within a scene. There’s nothing wrong with writing omniscient — it’s classic and fits well with this period piece.
He also switches past and present verb tenses frequently, like we tend to do in our own minds. It’s a trademark technique that drops the reader into the action. For example, when Clara questions the rainmaker about how he makes rain, we see this. “Crooking a finger, he wanted her to follow to the rear of his truck, flapping back the musty canvas.” It’s a way of cutting out all the little words so there’s room to pepper the prose with specific details and sensory images.
Kalteis must time travel. How else can he know all the product brands and describe them in such detail they could be sitting on our shelf? Nine pages in, Grainger’s Mercantile is written like a eulogy to bygone days: “Life Savers for a nickel, Red Bud Soda Water, Tower Root Beer, Ace High hair pomade …” Clara’s come to the store to use the phone. She wants to tell her momma that she’s leaving Sonny. And she does leave Sonny. Unfortunately, the truck breaks down and she gets back to the farm just in time to experience a duster blowing, a flaming cross by their mailbox, and their barn burning down. That’s all in scene one — two chaotic pages that propel the reader right into the action and the character’s plight.
There’s a not-so-subtle political commentary blowing in the background of this text. The White Knights of the Great Plains don their masks and wage war on anyone who’s not them, including the unique cast of a traveling circus show. We also hear about FDR’s new deal: schemes to create work for down-and-out Americans. Like Sonny and Clara, the whole state seems to be on the move. I’m reminded of John Steinbeck as I read: The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men. The language is similar. Some words are now considered offensive, but at the time, this was the way things were and the Klan are the villains. They talk as they think. Nowhere does Kalteis slip outside the 1930s to be politically correct. He wants us to experience the chaos, the horror, and the despair of the moment.
This book is a crime novel driven by Sonny’s desperation, so I don’t want to give away any secrets. But there are some twists and surprises, like the introduction of several new characters from “The Happy Mustard Show” two-thirds of the way through the book. There’s a reason for it. A big reason.
But it’s Clara who’s the biggest surprise of all. Brave, strong, and independent, she might not have become a dancer, but she certainly takes centre stage.
Call Down the Thunder is published by ECW Press.