In 1934, at the height of the Dust Bowl, the Interior Department hires geologist RJ Evans to open a soil lab in her drought-stricken Kansas home town. She knows locals won’t welcome a stubborn woman with a “fancy degree,” but the level of hostility is unexpected. How can she convince the disheartened to believe in a future? RJ translates six years of study into practical skills for her skeptical audience. She proves her mettle in every sandstorm. She loves her work. She falls in love with a farmer who calls her Rosa Jean, but he wants her to leave Kansas and her job. RJ’s life changes while she reexamines her personal goals, prompting her to make some surprising decisions. Readers may question RJ’s choices and wonder about her past, but her dilemma is touchingly familiar. By placing a recognizable protagonist in an almost unimaginable setting—a land under attack and a people uprooted—McCann (All Different Kinds of Free, 2011) has crafted an unforgettable novel. — Jeanne Greene
Peculiar Savage Beauty
Jessica McCann, author
Peculiar Savage Beauty is the story of a headstrong and fiercely independent young woman who charges into the heart of the wind- and drought-ravaged Great Plains in the 1930s, intent on battling the dust and healing the land. As a geologist working for the U.S. government, Rosa Jean “RJ” Evans must find her place in a small farming town that welcomes neither a woman in authority nor changes to their way of life. Inspired by actual historical events during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl environmental disaster, Peculiar Savage Beauty is a parable about man’s quest to dominate the land and nature’s refusal to be conquered, about unlikely alliances and unexpected love.
The heart of McCann’s gripping, atmospheric novel, set in 1934 during the Dust Bowl, is an intrepid government geologist, Rosa Jean “RJ” Evans, who returns to her drought-stricken hometown to help farmers stop soil erosion and restore the land. The environmental devastation and human suffering are shocking to RJ, yet many of the residents of Vanham, Kans., do not welcome the interference of a government scientist, or a woman at that. RJ sets up soil experiments, gradually persuading some farmers to adopt her methods, while easing into friendships with brilliant, misunderstood Woody, who becomes her assistant, and Ethel, the owner of the local diner. RJ also falls in love with Harvey Clay, who wants to marry RJ and move to Wichita for a new life, yet he forces her to choose between marriage and her career. The dust storms depicted are graphic and terrible, none more so than the “black blizzard,” based on 1935’s Black Sunday. McCann is especially good at using the ever-present dust—gritty, dirty, seeping into homes, and infecting characters with “dust pneumonia”—to depict its devastation on humans, livestock, crops, and homes. McCann’s Dust Bowl saga meshes a seminal event in American history with a suspenseful plot and insightfully etched characters. (BookLife)