Heat Lightning by Helen Hull

Making a new author discovery is both wonderful and anxiety inducing. Having adored the first book of theirs you came across, and knowing very little of their reputation or oeuvre, how can you approach their work for a second time with anything other than trepidation?! I need not have been worried about Heat Lightning, however; it is just as magnificent as Morning Shows the Day and left me once again surprised that Helen Hull has fallen into that terrible black hole entitled ‘mid century woman novelist’, where she has the excellent company of too many others who are equally undeserving to be consigned to such a dark and impenetrable fate.

I digress. Heat Lightning is set over a scorching week in a sleepy, faded Midwestern town. Amy Norton has come back to stay with her parents and take a ‘rest’ from her busy life in New York, but little do her family know that their glamorous and successful daughter is really running from a marriage that is falling apart and a life that does not make her happy. Hoping for a chance to get some peace and clarity, Amy has returned to the fold of the Westover clan, the most prominent family in this once prosperous farming community. However, times have changed since she has been gone and her sprawling family is splitting at the seams. Amy’s restful holiday becomes anything but as she finds herself drawn into the complicated affairs of her uncles, aunts and cousins, and rather than escape her own difficulties, she realises she must face them, and the flaws in her personality and approach to life that have contributed to bringing them about.

This is a novel about so many things, so perfectly expressed. It touches at the core of life, bringing flashes of illumination to the hidden questions that run, dormant but pulsing, under the surface of our existence. What is it that holds families together, when we are all such a diverse pool of different personalities with a multitude of needs and desires that are usually at odds with those of others? Can we ever really understand the people our parents are, separate from their relationship to us, and would we want to if we could? How do we learn to grow into the people we need to become in order to cope with the responsibilities of our adult lives? And how much do we really know about the people we love the most; the lives they have lived before we came into them, the secret vulnerabilities and fears that haunt them? Life, our pasts, love, and our relationships with one another are so fraught with difficulty and confusion and misunderstanding that at times we can find ourselves lost in the midst of our own existence, fighting to work out who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going. Who can we turn to, and where do we look for answers?  Amy has run home to look for hers, in the comforting surroundings of her mother’s living room and her grandmother’s porch, and over the course of what will be a tumultuous, stormy week, she will see flashes of inspiration in the words and actions of those who raised her, giving her just enough light to see the way forward.

Helen Hull’s writing is exquisite, evocative, ripe for the picking; every line is beautifully crafted, every character teeming with life. She effortlessly paints a picture of a dappled, sun bleached town filled with clapboard houses and grey dust, peopled by housewives in printed calico and sulky teenagers quivering with frustration. As her characters clash and struggle, so does the world outside of them, as the depression hits and all financial security is lost. Amy, come from the big city to shelter in this backwater, comes to realise that there is no escape from the realities of life; they are just as prominent in the rural Midwest as they are in Midtown. This sort of domestic, ‘small town’ tale is woefully underappreciated by the literary establishment; like Dorothy Whipple, Helen Hull’s perception, her clarity of expression and her ability to tease out the quiet, unspoken thoughts and fears that ripple under the surface of each of our lives is magnificent. Like it or not, most of our lives are lived out in our homes, amongst the people we are related to, and it is within this domestic arena that the real drama and struggle and flight of life reigns supreme. It takes true skill to rivet the heart and mind while remaining within the four walls of the family home, and I can’t praise Hull’s abilities enough. I’m ready for a Helen Hull revival! Who’s with me?!

27 comments

  1. Hi Rachel: I’m with you! Although I’ve only just started Heat Lightning, I already like it a lot and feel the comparison to Dorothy Whipple is very apt (not just because Greenbanks and Heat Lightning were published in the same year) – I would also hazard that they are both in the same writing universe as Elizabeth Bowen – she is also overlooked, though quite a bit better known than either Whipple or Hull.

    They all focus with lasers on domestic life – its dynamics, betrayals, joys, and dangers. The textures and forces inherent in human relationships are their primary themes. Obviously, these have traditionally been female topics and, especially when these topics are dealt with primarily within families or family to family (rather than on the battlefield or in prime minister’s offices), this type of writing is frequently derisively labeled as chick lit.

    But these authors, like Jane Austen, aren’t interested in bubbly, simplistic romances, their “projects” go to the heart of human existence and are essential (not to mention extremely interesting and beautifully written). Whipple and Bowen were powerhouses at advancing our understanding of these topics and I suspect that Hull was too – all deserve so much more recognition than they get.

    Thanks for bringing more of their talents to light (and I think I just wrote part of a future post on my blog!), Kathy aka Ruby

    1. What a brilliant and perceptive comment, Kathy! I entirely agree. Women’s writing talents are too easily dismissed just because they write about the domestic sphere – that doesn’t mean to say that their observations are not profound and significant. I look forward to reading your fuller version of this comment, and your views on Heat Lightning!!

  2. Ok, you’ve sold me. Now I have to find some books by Helen Hull. I doubt that they are in my local library, but I will look.

  3. yip you’ve got me too. Although can’t commit to reading them just yet, Helen Hull is on my list of books to look out for this year! Sounds intriguing!

  4. Of course I am longing to read Hull now… you do make everything sound so enticing! And it does seem like you have a charmed reading life. When was the last time you read a bad book?!

    1. I know you would love her Simon! If you are a good boy I might send you one of her books as a little present! I do, though it’s because I am very picky about what I read in the first place…there’s no variety as I only choose what I know I’ll like!!

  5. I don’t believe it! Last night I looked for your latest post and there was nothing there, so I thought I would go and finish my book – Heat Lightning. It is certainly a good read, the family can get a little complicated or perhaps it’s my concentration. I thought mother was always trying to be too nice to everyone, but on reflection it’s what mums do, keep the peace. Grandma is a real fiesty character, I would love to meet her; she reminded me of a charcacter from so many things I’ve seen before, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe for example, because of her strength and sense of purpose. I also found it interesting that Amy went home for security and reassurance, and learnt more herself and relationships in general than she antiscipated. I don’t think what she actually experienced was what she thought she would get. As an opening onto a historical period I found this a more enjoyable read than Steinbeck, perhaps because the reality of peoples experiences wasn’t quite so stark and she focused more on peoples relationships. If only Hull’s novels were more readily available my local library and Amazon are not proving helpful.

    1. What a coincidence, and how wonderful that you’ve had the chance to read it! Your impressions are very interesting – I liked the way Amy went home and got exactly the opposite of what she got, too. I think as we move into adulthood and the complexities of our own lives take over, we tend to idealise ‘home’ as a place of simplicity and safety, and we forget that our parents and other family members have lives just as complex and difficult as our own, and we just didn’t realise that as children because it was hidden from view. Even though she’s in her thirties, Amy’s parents still try and hide their distress from her, and that sense of them being their own world of two and Amy being their satellite was also a fascinating observation and one that left me pondering just how little of my parents’ real selves I know, and how much of themselves they hide from me. Her sense of place and historical context is also very well done, I agree – she brings the 30’s totally to life. I adored every page and like you I wish she were more readily avaiable for all to enjoy. I think her books are much more easily found in the US but you can get lucky on UK amazon if you order from US sellers. Thanks so much for coming by!

    1. Certainly, this the first time I have EVER commented on a blog, I was feeling terribly brave, and it looks like it worked! Thank you! You’ll have to let me know how I find out that you’re a ‘real’ person!

      1. Yes, Jo, Rachel is a real person. I have met her and she lives and breathes! Click onto the link at the top of her blog that says “Who is Book Snob”?

        Rachel, this review is spot on. Bravo.

      2. Thanks Ellen!! Glad you enjoyed it. I wish we could go and have tea and talk about it in person! Actually, that’s a thought…we should skype! I’m going to email you about it. I miss you!

    2. So glad to hear that, Liz! I have a copy of Islanders on my shelf waiting so I’ll be delighted to hear what you think. A swap shop for Helen Hull fans sounds like a good idea!🙂

  6. After reading this review, I’m all about a Helen Hull revival. I’m working through a couple of books at the moment, but this one will be high on the reading list for me afterwards!

    Writing about the experiences of the home–where family dynamics begin and most of us learn how to negotiate the world–shouldn’t be seen as “less than” just because historically it’s been the realm of women. Not to sound like some acid trip junkie, but to my way of thinking, it’s all related in some cosmic way, don’t you think?? Dictators/Presidents/Captains of Industry all started out in some sort of household. Some of the best stories I’ve read have been directly related to the domestic sphere!

    1. I’m glad to hear it, Stacie! Hope you can find time to get started on Heat Lightning soon.

      I absolutely agree – home is where we all learn how to become the people we turn into, and as such it is the foundation stone of our society and of everything we think and do and are. Women’s historic reign over the domestic sphere is actually very interesting, as though men have written them out of the action of history, you can’t get away from the fact that women have actually moulded society and its values from the earliest times, albeit in a passive rather than active role. I think by being consistently in the background of life, their vital role in forming society has been largely overlooked – when something is always there, you do sort of forget about it. Novels set in the domestic sphere have suffered the same fate – due to their ubiquity, they are considered less important than those exploring war or famine or disaster. Sadly this has resulted in many profound and beautiful novels being dismissed or forgotten about, just because they feature kitchens rather than battlefields. We must do what we can to redress this now!

  7. Hi Rachel: How fun to re-read your review of this book now that I have done mine. Yours is so insightful. We picked up on some different things, but mostly a common core. You helped me think about the book in new ways. What a lush and wonderful story!

    And I sent a note to my big regional library that has held on to so many original Whipple and Hull books, thanking them for retaining such great work even though the books are surely not being checked out much. They have one (a Hull novel, I think) from 1927 that you can only read in the library. It must be fragile. Heat Lightning was checked out fairly regularly through the 1940s and 50s, and then every couple years into the 1980s (the old checkout stamp slip was intact, they would have switched to computers at some point). Interesting to see the history of readership. Thanks again for bringing attention to Hull. Ruby

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed reading Hull so much! And well done you for congratulating your library – they need to know that they should be keeping these books and that people will keep enjoying them for years to come!

  8. Hi Rachel: Thought you might be interested to learn (if you didn’t know already) that Hull has a Facebook page – I’ll resist the humor, it is a nice way to bring attention to her. I’m about to post about Mayling Soong Chiang (one of her books – nonfiction) on my blog, happy reading, Ruby

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