Heat Lightning; Persephone book number 101 was first published in 1932, and in fact was a book-of-the-month club selection for April of that year. Over a period of fifty years Helen Hull produced some seventeen novels and many short stories, and so it is surprising that until Persephone re-issued Heat Lightning I had never heard of her. Judging by this novel alone, Hull was a gifted writer, and one I would certainly like to read more by.
Heat Lightning is a domestic American novel; set in an unnamed Michigan town, presumably reminiscent to the one Helen Hull herself grew up in. It is summer 1930, when Amy Norton arrives back in the town she grew up in, to stay for a week with her family. Her husband has gone on a fishing holiday, her two children are at summer camp, and Amy must work out what it is that is wrong with her marriage.
‘Now that she was back in the town of her childhood, standing on a corner across from the village triangle of green, a small pyramid of luggage at her feet, Amy’s one clear thought, over the fluttering of unimportant recognitions, was “Why on earth have I come?”’
The extreme summer heat crackles off the pages, its oppressive effects ever present, as the heat lightning of the title threatens, like the conflicts at the heart of a large family.
Amy usually only comes home at Christmas, it has been years since she last saw the town in its summer colours, and she arrives in a heatwave, the day her sister Mary gives birth to her fifth daughter. All families have their complexities, and the Westover family is no exception, some of Amy’s family are more complex than others. Amy’s mother, Catherine, is mildly distracted by the new arrival – rushing back and forth to Mary’s house, her father Alfred has business worries. In another, smaller house on the edge of the Westover property lives the matriarch of the family, Madam Westover, Amy’s grandmother. Madam Westover tended to by the faithful Lavinia and doted on by Curly, the silent, odd job man is the lynchpin of the family. Madam Westover is a woman of contradictions, easy in the use of casual racial epithets; she is also an apparent righter of wrongs, a champion of the less privileged, she is the strongest character in the novel. Having little time for hypocrisy or the pretensions of some of her relatives, Madam Westover is a stubborn dispenser of good advice.
“A lifetime’s too short to find your way about another’s heart, without blunderings and mistakes. That’s why these folks nowadays are so foolish, rushing into marriage, out of it, into another. They never do anything but make a beginning, and then make the same beginning again. They think there’s nothing else, besides that crazy excitement at the first.”
Lora, Amy’s aunt is a weak weeping woman, still smarting from the betrayal which led to her divorce, her unmarried grown up children; Tom and Harriet provide Lora with plenty to worry about, while she spars with Laurance’s wife, her daughter-in-law Emma. In the portrayal of Harriet, Amy’s cousin, we see the attitudes of the 1930’s. Harriet, is quite obviously a lesbian (although that term is never used), she wears unattractive, masculine tweeds, smokes heavily, and refers coyly to her woman friend waiting for her somewhere or other, the family seem to view Harriet indulgently, and a little patronisingly as someone who given time can surely be cured. This negative portrayal of the character Harriet and Amy’s apparent distaste for her is especially odd; as I believe Helen Hull spent her life with a woman (perhaps Amy’s attitude merely reflects the attitude of many sections of 1930s society). Tom, meanwhile indulging in bootlegging activities has entered into a little dalliance with Lulu, Alfred and Catherine Westover’s maid, and it appears the girl has become pregnant.
As Alfred’s business worries worsen, due wholly to money being withdrawn from the business by his brother and squandered rashly on the stock market, Amy watches the various members of her family, as she tries to make sense of her own feelings. There is necessarily a good deal of introspection here, which is partly what makes this novel a fairly slow read. As I generally prefer the kinds of novels where ‘nothing very much happens’ –this wasn’t a problem. When an unexpected family crisis – in the midst of everything else going on – occurs, Amy tries to cable her husband, only to find he is not where she thought he would be.
“Queer, how her own desperate need of light seemed to throw such brilliance over the affairs of the members of her family. She carried her need like a many-batteried pocket spotlight, illuminating emotional corners in other people, but she walked in darkness behind it. Her wrist wouldn’t bend to turn it on herself.”
It is testament to Hull’s skill as a writer, that she can explore so much of how human beings live together in the very simply story of a week in the life of one family. Here there is conflict, greed and selfishness, family secrets, betrayals and new beginnings. Hull’s thoughtful narrative allowing the reader to enter into the minds of these people, we particularly feel Amy’s bewilderment over her marriage, as she struggles to understand what has happened to her and husband Geoffrey.
This is an excellent novel although its scope is domestic; there is astute intelligence here fine writing and quiet drama.