Bob Sommer’s Where the Wind Blew tells the story of Peter St. John, a family man and business owner in Kansas. One day a curious student at the high school newspaper accidentally stumbles on his past. She finds out his real name is Peter Howell. He was once a member of a radical student group, and he is wanted for his involvement in a bombing years ago that claimed three lives.
The novel picks up just as the shocking news breaks. National TV and radio pick up Peter’s story, the FBI is at his house interrogating his family, and Peter is on the run. This suspenseful opening shows Peter bouncing from campsite to campsite in national parks, living off gas station snacks and little sleep, trying to stay off the grid and figure his next move. The smallest action is heavy with consequence. A fire left burning nearly gets Peter caught by a camp ranger. A sip of river water makes him deathly ill. A stop on the road’s shoulder for a nap could draw the attention of a state trooper. We get the feeling that he could be caught at any moment.
He also seems riddled with guilt, buried in it. Guilt for his involvement in the bombing, for the lies he told his family, for what he’s left behind for them to deal with. Peter seems genuinely hurt and panicked early on in the book, and we worry for him.
But as the book moves on, that tension — and the sympathy we feel for Peter — starts to fade. The other aspects of the story the author explores — Peter’s wife’s shocked curiosity, how Peter joined a radical group in the first place, how his children are coping in his absence — all read as either repetitive or sold short.
Emma, Peter’s daughter and an angry, caustic teen, is furious with the girl who exposed her father, but the danger that she’ll take some sort of revenge is never explored. The way his wife questions their marriage — at first compelling as she clings to markers like her made-up last name just to claim some control over her reality — flatlines as she continually asks the same questions. Why didn’t he tell them? Was his love for them a lie, too? She worries over these points constantly, but never seeks out answers.
In fact, we don’t see the family do much of anything. Instead, they just keep echoing their initial shock. They have no proof is the family’s empty chorus, even as it becomes clear that Peter wasn’t the father and husband they knew.
Who was Peter then? Well, the story of his past doesn’t make him much more than a generically confused and slightly lazy student, drawn into a movement initially by drugs and drinking, and a woman named Susan. She was a woman he lost because of the movement, whom it turns out he never got over.
In fact, Peter’s flight from justice eventually morphs into a search for any trace of her. We begin to understand, as he treks all the way to Maine to track her down, that perhaps Susan was the thing he left that he couldn’t get past. His regret over the bombing isn’t forgotten, but at the story moves on, it gets buried under a feeling of love lost. It is the most compelling subplot in the novel. Peter’s regret over his crimes mixes with lonesome pining for a life he could have had with Susan.
But the number of balls Sommer has in the air takes away from that story, too. To cover all its bases, the book glosses over large chunks of time. Sommer continually goes back to Peter’s past to give us some obvious and ham-handed context for the political upheaval in the ’60s. From one chapter to another in the present action, months have passed in Peter’s life on the lam.
We don’t stay with the family long enough to understand their emotional states. So it becomes difficult to tell why, for example, Emma forgives the girl who wrote the story, how she all of a sudden becomes so understanding. Todd, Peter’s son, is nearly a nonentity. And his sister-in-law Jean seems to hang around the house only to annoy the other characters, which doesn’t add to the tension so much as it annoys the reader at the same time.
And Peter not only has very little trouble staying hidden — rarely is anyone hot on his tail, and whenever he is low on money there’s someone, like a random librarian, to help him out — but he continually refuses to turn himself in. The more he says he will, the more his intentions ring hollow, particularly as his trajectory takes him closer to Susan and farther from his family.
In the end, any empathy we have for Peter goes out the window as he keeps deciding against facing his abandoned family, and inevitable jail time. His reasons for his continued hiding become increasingly dubious, and even he doesn’t know sometimes why he keeps running. More troubling, though, is the way other characters let him off the hook. His wife comes to realize how hard hiding his secret has been for him. Emma seems to admire his revolutionary past. Those that help him on the road see him as a lost soul, some romantic notion of a man beaten down by the world.
As the book goes on, it becomes less a rumination on how our past can haunt us, and more an exercise in justifying Peter’s actions. Where the Wind Blew gives us the requisite ’60s tragedies to needlessly remind us that Vietnam was a catastrophe worth railing against. But the book also seems to imply — intentionally or not — that a wartime zeitgeist can absolve us of our own mistakes, or at least render them understandable. As long as we’re on the right side of the fence.