Posts Tagged ‘1932 Novel’

Heat Lightning by Helen Hull ~ 1932. This edition: Coward-McCann, 1932. Hardcover. 328 pages.

Apologies first to anyone receiving these posts via email. I accidentally hit “publish” last night while saving the first bit of this post, so you might have read the intro and not much else!

The books-to-be-written-about are piling up again. This is a mixed good-bad thing. Good because it means I’ve had a fair bit of reading time (these long dark evenings) and bad because, well, the books are piling up!

I’m also feeling a bit disgruntled right now because of the Canada Post labour dispute. The Postal Carriers’ Union is carrying out rotating one-day strikes right now in order to put pressure on the CP corporation to get an expired contract improved and renewed, and apparently the mail backlog is suddenly so severe that Canada Post has closed the borders to out-of-Canada mail. Which means that the list of things-from-ABE I had planned for topping off my Century of Books project (and my Christmas season reading indulgence) is in limbo, as are all of the very time sensitive seed orders for our plant nursery, which are already somewhere in the international mail system.

The book lack is merely annoying, but the seed delay is potentially financially brutal, so I’m rather tense at the moment. Totally in sympathy with the strikers, and hoping they get a decent settlement, but argh – my stuff!

I think October was my “breathing space” month, as things are getting exceedingly busy once again, with no sign of a let-up. So book posts might¬† well be slimmer than I’d like them to be, though I hope to keep them coming. I have a lot of “business” writing in my life at present; the “fun” book blog is back seat priority!

Okay, that personal update out of the way, let’s take a quick look at Helen Hull’s Heat Lightning.

Midwest American writer Helen Hull was on her way up as a popular fiction writer when she wrote this introspective domestic novel during the first early years of the Great Depression.

Amy Norton stands on the baking hot street in her old home town in Michigan. She’s just arrived from New York, running away – her own words – from something as yet undefined. She’s just had a minor operation; she’s supposed to be convalescing; her children are safely off to summer camp; her husband is apparently “off fishing”, but she’s not really sure if that is the case. Amy is looking forward to spending a week or two sheltered in the refuge of her childhood roof, back in a place where she once had a clearly defined identity as one of the wealthy and respectable Westovers, firmly ensconced in the social order of the town.

But something is out of kilter. No one has come to meet her, she stands with her luggage all alone, wondering why she’s come, and if this will indeed prove to be what she’s looking for: a breathing space, a way to regain her emotional equilibrium to go forward and then back to whatever it is she’s stepped away from.

What had possessed her to come? The heat curled up about her ankles, pressed a straw odor out of the shantung silk across her shoulders. Even the drug store windows were a duplicate of the city. Traffic lights regulated automatically for all of life. This place would have no virtue for her, no wisdom for her need. There was the movie house her grandmother had built, and how the family had pounded against it! The Westover Block cut in stone over the entrance, garish posters on the boards beside the door. LAWRENCE TIBBETS (sic) IN “THE ROGUE SONG.” Radios in the window of the furniture store, and a set of porch furniture with striped awning cushions and a sun umbrella, quite in the Long Island manner. Everything was a duplication of everywhere else…

When Amy reaches her parents’ house, she does settle into a sort of normal, though there are obvious cracks in the smooth surface of things-as-they-were. It is 1930, a year after the great Wall Street stock market crash, and instability is permeating every aspect of the American economy; even the most well regulated of businesses is finding that things are getting difficult; the money isn’t where it once was. Everyone’s uneasy.

The summer heat isn’t helping. No rain has fallen for months, it’s turned into a drought. Leaves hang limply on trees, flowers are burning up in gardens as crops are in fields, dust is thick enough to taste, and tempers are flaring to match the weather.

Early edition dust jacket, sadly not present with my own copy.

Melodrama is lurking in the sultry shadows, and no sooner does Amy arrive then things long brewing start to boil over: a baby is born too early, an illegitimate sibling is identified, a bootlegger’s stash leads to violence, a hired girl’s pregnancy implicates a Westover son, the wealthiest brother fights bankruptcy with vicious amorality, a will is destroyed, a matriarch dies. The foundations everyone never really¬† thought about but assumed were rock solid are shaking.

Amy, hoping to gain wisdom in her own moral dilemma by observing and learning from her admired mother and grandmother, finds herself an unwilling voyeur of bad decisions coming home to roost, with sordid family secrets and true natures – good and bad – revealed.

This is a quietly powerful book. Despite the dramatic embellishments, Hull keeps her character Amy moving steadily forward, working out her personal dilemmas, drawing up her roadmap for moving on with her own life, and watching carefully how her disparate family navigates the small and large tragedies which have befallen them.

Heat Lightning is a fascinating period piece which embellishes our understanding of how the onset of the Great Depression affected the stolidly respectable and secure American urban upper middle class. No picturesquely dusty farmers here, merely small town businessmen finding their investments crumbling away bit by bit, watching their inventories stagnate, and hearing whispers of discontent and fear from all around.

Helen Hull was a noted feminist in her time, and Heat Lightning addresses the ever-thorny issue of womens’ roles in society. She talks both in veiled terms and then quite frankly of premarital sex, abortion, lesbianism, and the quandaries of navigating as an “advancing woman” through the status quo of a patriarchal society and its matriarchal shadow world.

Thought provoking stuff, all wrapped up in a rather engaging fictional form.

I liked it. I want to read more things by Helen Hull.

My rating: 8/10

Heat Lightning, which was a Book-of-the-Month selection in 1932, is easy to find secondhand, and it was also republished by Persephone a few years ago. (Author bio here.) A few of her other novels were republished by university presses and are relatively common: Quest (1922), and Islanders (1927), were “feminist studies” set novels for some years and copies are easy to find. As for the rest of Helen Hull’s twenty or so novels, keep your eyes open, and good luck.

The search might be complicated by the fact that there are no less than three authorial Helen Hulls writing in roughly the same time period. Heat Lightning‘s author is Helen R. (Rose) Hull, but you may find works by Helen Hull Jacobs popping up in your search engine (a noted tennis player, she wrote a number of mostly sports-related books later in her career), and garden writer Helen S. Hull will show up, too.

Below, the Book-of-the-Month Club insert for Heat Lightning, snagged from Scott’s excellent Furrowed Middlebrow review.

Couldn’t resist adding this 1930 movie poster featuring Lawrence Tibbett, as referenced in the first few pages of Heat Lightning. (Either Hull or her editor spelled Tibbett’s name wrong in the novel.)

 

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