As anyone who has seen the movie Twister knows, tornadoes are a tough subject to base a work of fiction around. The reason is that tornadoes are simply a benevolent force of nature: despite any appearance to the contrary, they’re not evil. They just merrily go about their business and if a cow or a trailer home happens to get in their way, what happens is what happens. They aren’t vengeful serial killers stalking prey: they form, touchdown and then, moments later, usually go away. Thus, it’s really hard to make tornadoes seem antagonistic in that kind of context.
In fact, I know that I’ve read somewhere that the early settlers to the American Midwest, which is where most of these so-called monsters are spawned, actually looked somewhat favourably on violent weather, for tornadoes would do much of the grunt work of ploughing fields for these grateful farmers. Even if you can overlook the alleged “positive” impacts of these swirling beasts, and I would imagine that most trailer park residents do, it’s really hard to achieve maximum thrills and spills from chasing these storms, especially if you consider too that most of the sensible action would take place not in chasing, but in basements and cellars, clear away from the main action as much as possible. Thus, in order to create a fantastic, crackling story about heavy weather, you pretty much have to put characters in harm’s way by making them brazen enough to go there.
In Twister, there was much to be in awe about when human beings (stupidly) put themselves in grave danger by plunging headfirst into the maelstrom, though it came at the expense of being somewhat over-the-top. (Remember the scene at the end where the protagonists are being “chased” by a huge wedge tornado, and they take shelter in a barn full of all sorts of hooks and knives dangling about? I don’t think I’ve ever felt a sense of having money milked from me any stronger at the movies than that very moment.) However, you can’t have a relentless wall-to-wall action movie about tornadoes, since, once again, they’re usually so short lived; thus, when the tornadoes were out taking a cigarette break in Twister, what we were left with was a mushy, gooey love story that was so melodramatic I could have sworn there was a string orchestra in the theatre I was sitting in, trying to hit all of the high-strung emotional buttons.
Into this fray comes Jenna Blum, the New York Times bestselling author of Those Who Save Us, with a sophomore novel that is, on the surface, about chasing tornadoes. There is, however, a bit of a difference between Twister, which was meant to be an unrelenting action movie, and Blum’s latest novel, The Stormchasers, in that this author treats chasing tornadoes not for the sheer visceral thrill of it, but as a metaphor for mental illness. Now, I will be the first to admit – being a person who suffers from mental illness myself (I’m mildly schizophrenic) – that using tornadoes to describe one’s mental and emotional state is about as heavy-handed a metaphor as someone dropping an anvil on your head. Drawing parallel lines between, in this case, the bi-polar disorder that one character suffers and his penchant for driving around Tornado Alley in the summer to catch wind of violent storms is perhaps a touch on the heavy-handed side.
Still, The Stormchasers is a bit of an usual book in that this is women’s literature – the genre offhandedly referred to as Chick Lit – and considering that’s the case, the genre’s tent poles of romance and family emotions are particularly strong, here. That said, I actually have to award some points to Blum for writing such a novel aimed at women in that the usual tenants of shopping and fashion are pretty much dispersed of in her work. Instead, we get what is largely a road novel, full of cheap motels and sleep deprivation. That’s not to say that women as a whole aren’t interested in meteorological phenomena, but The Stormchasers is a non-traditional entry into the Chick Lit canon, as there’s a lot of scientific talk in the book and a lot of getting one’s hands dirty. Sophie Kinsella this ain’t.
The Stormchasers, for better or for worse, actually feels like three novels wrapped into one, as there’s a huge swath of plot that’s covered over the course of its 350-plus pages. The story centres on a successful journalist in her late 30s named Karina Jorge who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It turns out that Karina has a twin brother named Charles Hallingdahl with whom she shares an intense sibling bond with – in one of the more laughable aspects of the novel, Karina repeatedly remembers what life was like in her mother’s womb with her brother – but hasn’t seen in precisely 20 years, not since a terrible tragedy befell the duo on their 18th birthdays.
Charles, of course, is bi-polar and has been shuffled in and out of mental hospitals and has been placed on a cocktail of various medications (which, in a very truthful move, he largely refuses to take). And so the novel begins on Karina’s 38th birthday, wondering what her at-large twin brother is up to when, lo and behold, she gets a phone call from a hospital in Kansas where Charles has checked himself in. Once Karina rushes over, however, Charles is gone, having only told the hospital staff that he was suffering a panic attack rather than the more likely prognosis of psychosis. Thus begins a tale where Karina, sensing the worst for her sibling, embarks on a cross-country search, seemingly suddenly getting the idea that if she joins up with a storm chasing company – since Charles is incredibly infatuated with tornados – she will eventually stumble upon her brother.
At this moment, I’d like to just pause and point out a large fallacy of the novel: Karina knows her brother is deeply passionate about violent weather, and she has been following his posts on various storm tracking websites. Did it really take her 20 years to figure out the obvious: that if she wanted to find her brother, all she had to do is hitch a ride on a professional storm chasing tour? That aspect is a little hard to swallow.
In any event, this turn of events allows Blum to essentially write the feminine equivalent of the masculine-dominated road novel, at least in The Stormchasers’ first third, as Karina wanders all over Tornado Alley on her quixotic quest to find her other half. This is the novel’s most lively section, as Karina experiences life on the highway with perilous few pit stops and encounters less than hospitable living arrangements in sleazy motels. In fact, this is where we, as readers, learn the fundamental rule of storm chasing: that it’s not the tornadoes that are particularly dangerous, it’s the other drivers on the road who are unprofessionally rushing headlong into these storms to catch a glimpse of Mother Nature at her fieriest that can cause the most damage. And, yes, there is a fair amount of action in these first few pages as Karina and company get a good first-hand look at some particularly nasty storms. What’s more, a romance between Karina and a storm chasing guide develops – though I would quibble that this relationship moves ahead at a tornadic clip to feel truly realistic or meaningful.
However, the storm chasing aspect of the novel ends at precisely page 169, as we’re then treated to a lengthy flashback to a fateful day 20 years prior where Karina and Charles, while out chasing a storm during a psychotic break that Charles has, do a particularly terrible thing. In the grand scheme of things, though, it’s an accident, and as a reader I felt that, while it was serious, it’s perhaps a bit overplayed by Blum. At this point, The Stormchasers turns into a bit of a sappy story about secrets and family strife, making the novel pivot 180 degrees from the breezy and breathless pace of the front of the book. In fact, the novel, from here, becomes overwrought and one really gets the sense that perhaps Karina, as a character, is a little too emotionally vulnerable to truly become invested in her.
While the novel is deftly very serious and dark, particularly in its latter half, there are some touches of humor here and there. For instance, we meet Karina as she’s preparing to leave work to go home and watch – wait for it – Gone with the Wind. (Insert the sound of a corny, muted trumpet going wah, wah, wah, wah, waaaaaah here.) What’s more, I found Blum’s portrait of Charles to be particularly note-perfect in describing his manic moods and utter unpredictability, and while he’s not often an appealing character, Blum does paint him as someone who has the ability to overcome his mental demons and actually be quite brilliant, particularly given that he has an uncanny knack to usually know where the tornadoes are going to be.
However, the real strengths of this novel lie in the first third of the book, with Karina kicking off her personal search for a brother she has sworn to protect, and I would almost recommend just closing the book at its turning point at page 169. After that mark, The Stormchasers, alas, turns from being a subversive novel in the Chick Lit genre to one that trumpets all of its cloying hallmarks, especially in its rendering of girl loses boy (in more ways than one) and its tacked-on somewhat happy ending. This turn is unfortunate, for The Stormchasers starts out being a much needed breath of fresh air and it’s a novel that leaves you on pins and needles as our protagonists march out into the Great Plains to put themselves in harm’s way for their own complex personal reasons.
Overall, The Stormchasers is not bad, and its opening salvo even crosses gender boundaries, making it a book – at least, initially – that ordinary men wouldn’t mind picking up. However, with the more we learn about its characters and their almost incestuous ties to each other, The Stormchasers winds up having the impact of a tiny downburst, one that alas gives into cliché. Which is not to say that the The Stormchasers isn’t a good book. It has its moments, but, in the end, feels a little something like a missed opportunity, being stuffed with too much back story that knocks the novel’s forward momentum off, and takes a book that could have been about the perspective of a woman’s life travelling across mid-America, into tedious places about the necessary secrets families harbour.