All the Earth … and Then Some: A Look at Joe Lansdale’s Latest
It’s been a long while since I’ve read an opening of a book that’s as powerful and as thoughtfully wrought as the first few chapters to Joseph R. Lansdale’s All the Earth, Thrown to the Sky. Beginning with the line, “The wind could blow down a full-grown man, but it was the dust that was the worst,” we immediately know that we as readers are in for a ride, sure to be tested by this infamous dust, the grand amount of which is described in the book as being all at once red and white and black. And we know that it will consistently test our determination and faith, just as it will test the story’s main character Jack Catcher, a young boy recently left to face his coming of age alone during the Dust Bowl era of the Great Depression.
After all, once the wind’s knocked you down, you can get right back up if you wish. But the dust in this book has coated everything, has made it hard to see anything hopeful. Jack has lost everything. His mother to the “dirty pneumonia,” his father to a noose he hung himself from after Jack’s mama died. The lands are bare. And the only thing Jack is left with is the dust and a dinner of gritty, rotten rabbits that he’s done his best to cook. It’s easy to get totally absorbed in the vulnerability of Jack’s situation, though he begs for no sympathy. He is a simple young man, without any lofty dreams.
Enter Jack’s former classmate Jane and her younger brother Tony, who themselves have recently been left orphaned and without anything to tie them to the place. They show up in Jack’s yard with plans to steal a dead neighbor’s car and make a break for Texas. Together, they set out on an important journey, quickly turned crazy adventure. The trio faces a run-in with one of the era’s most notorious gangsters, and soon they are racing to warn a carnival-wrestler-turned-bank robber of the danger that is headed toward him. There are many exciting twists and turns along the way, including lessons learned about life, love and making the most of your own future.
Lansdale, an award-winning author, mostly known for his adult novels, has crafted in this new tale a piece of literature that is at once young and mature, candid and fleshy. It is a colorful ride through a part of our country during a time often left unexplored in books. And anyone will be able to see, once the dust has settled, what a ride it truly was – as well as a hearty and satisfying ending.
To find out more about Joseph R. Lansdale, visit his website here.
“[Lansdale has] a folklorist’s eye for telling detail and a front-porch raconteur’s sense of pace.” —The New York Times Book Review
This post originally ran on Random Acts of Reading, a children’s and young adult book blog featuring reviews, author interviews and behind-the-scenes publishing buzz.
Mama always claimed you could see the face of the devil in them sandstorms, you looked hard enough. I don't know about that, it being the devil and all. But I can tell you for sure there were times when the sand seemed to have shape, and I thought maybe I could see a face in it, and it was a mean face, and it was a face that had come to puff up and blow us away.
It might as well have been the devil, though. In a way, it had blowed Mama and Daddy away, 'cause one night, all the dust in her lungs--the dirty pneumonia, the doctor had called it--finally clogged up good and she couldn't breathe and there wasn't a thing we could do about it. Before morning she was dead. I finally fell asleep in a chair by her bed holding her cold hand, listening to the wind outside.
When I went to look for Daddy, I found him out in the barn. He'd hung himself from a rafter with a plowline from the old mule harness. He had a note pinned to his shirt that said: I CAN NOT TAKE IT WITH YOUR MAMA DEAD I LOVE YOU AND I AM SORRY. It was not a long note, but it was clear, and even without the note, I'd have got the message.
It hadn't been long since he done it, because there was still a slight swing to his body and his shadow waved back and forth across the floor and his body was still warm.
I got up on the old milking stool and cut him down with my pocketknife, my hand trembling all the while I done it. I went inside and got Mama, managed to carry her down the porch and lay her on an old tarp and tug her out to the barn. Then the sandstorm came again, like it was just waiting on me to get inside. It was slamming the boards on the outside of the barn all the time I dug. The sky turned dark as the inside of a cow even though it was midday. I lit a lantern and dug by that light. The floor of the barn was dirt and it was packed down hard and tight from when we still had animals walking around on it.
I had to work pretty hard at digging until the ground got cracked and I was down a few inches. Then it was soft earth, and I was able to dig quicker. Digging was all I let myself think about, because if I stopped to think about how the only family I had was going down into a hole, I don't know I could have done it.
I wrapped Mama and Daddy in the tarp and dragged them into the hole, side by side, gentle as I could. I started covering them up, but all of a sudden, I was as weak as a newborn kitten. I sat down on the side of the grave and looked at their shapes under the tarp. I can't tell you how empty I felt. I even thought about taking that plowline and doing to myself what Daddy had done.
But I didn't want to be like that. I wanted to be like the heroes in books I had read about, who could stand up against anything and keep on coming. I hated to say it about my Daddy, but he had taken the coward's way out, and I hadn't never been no coward and wasn't about to start. Still, I broke down and started crying, and I couldn't stop, though there didn't seem to be much wet in me. The world was dry, and so was I, and all the time I cried I heaved, like someone sick with nothing left inside to throw up.
The storm howled and rattled the boards in the barn. The sand drifted through the cracks and filled the air like a fine powder and the powder was the color of blood. It was Oklahoma soil that was killing us that day, and not no other. In an odd way I found that worse. It seemed more personal than dirt from Texas, Kansas, or the wilds of Nebraska.
The lantern light made the powder gleam. I sat there and stared at the blood-colored mist and finally got up the strength to stand and finish covering Mama and Daddy, mashing the dirt down tight and flat with the back of the shovel when I was done.
I started to say some words over them, but the truth was I wasn't feeling all that religious right then, so I didn't say nothing but "I love you two. But you shouldn't have gone and killed yourself, Daddy. That wasn't any kind of way to do."
I got the lantern and set it by the door, pulled some goggles off a nail and slipped them on. They had belonged to my granddaddy, who had been an aviator in World War I, and though I hadn't knowed him very well before he died, he had left them to me, and it was a good thing, 'cause I knowed a couple fellas that got their eyes scraped off by blowing sand and gone plumb blind.
I put the goggles on, blew out the lantern. Wasn't no use trying to carry it out there in the dark, 'cause the wind would blow it out. I set it down on the floor again, opened up the barn door, got hold of the rope Daddy had tied to a nail outside, and followed it through the dark with the wind blowing that sand and it scraping me like the dry tongue of a cat. I followed it over to where it was tied to the porch of the house, and then when I let go of it, I had to feel my way around until I got hold of the doorknob and pushed myself inside.
I remember thinking right then that things couldn't get no worse.
But I was wrong.
From the Hardcover edition.