Helen Hull’s sixth novel, Heat Lightning, was first published in 1932, and was (relatively) recently reissued by Persephone. According to the publishing house’s magazine, The Persephone Biannually, the idea for Heat Lightning came to the author when she read the following sentence in a magazine article: ‘Here in America we stem from many races, we have no homogenous roots, no common traditions’. The preface to the volume has been provided by Patricia McClelland Miller, who states that Heat Lightning is ‘at its core, a novel of ideas’. Miller’s informative writing shows the psychology of the characters, particularly of the novel’s protagonist, Amy. She states the way in which Amy is presented with ‘a dilemma common to many of Helen Hull’s characters: how can women flourish when they are expected to make most of the adjustments in situations which really require the efforts of both men and women?’
The novel, set in 1930, begins with Amy Westover, a thirty five-year-old woman, who is returning to her Michigan hometown with ‘a small pyramid of luggage at her feet’. She spent her childhood in a fictional town named Flemington, which she has fled to once more to escape her unhappy marriage in New York. ‘They would all wonder why she had come,’ Hull writes, ‘where her husband Geoffrey was, – and the joke was that she didn’t know the answer’. Despite returning under the guise of resting after a tonsil operation, she admits to her grandmother in an early conversation, ‘Yes, I ran away, alone’. Amy is ‘too thin, too tense, head with dark fluff of hair strained forward… and the dark eyes gave back an anxious stare’. Throughout, memories of her past is woven in, and these come to light when particular senses are affected by what she sees and feels around her – for example, the smell of ‘hot vinegar and spices’ remind her of making pickles on hot summer mornings.
A list of principal characters has been provided at the outset, ranging from our protagonist and her immediate family members to Charley Johnson, Amy’s grandmother’s former chauffeur. This list provides a useful reference point, as a lot of individuals are introduced in a kind of barrage in just a few pages. Whilst we learn rather a lot about Amy as the novel progresses, she still feels like a somewhat distant protagonist. We as readers are her overseers, and we are distinctly not part of her story. We watch her and her actions with mild interest, but there is a kind of barrier which Hull has erected which stops us from becoming too involved or too compassionate towards Amy. The other characters, too, are either not developed enough, or come across as superficial or cruel. Amy’s grandmother, for example, is incredibly judgemental of those around her, and is never scared of giving her often crude and bigoted opinions: ‘Curly doesn’t approve of immigration… No more do I. Too many foreigners. Too many right in our own family’.
The novel deals with Amy’s struggle of how to behave in two entirely different places – one as a responsible wife and mother to the oddly named Buff and Bobs, and the other as a child herself to her parents, who are ‘so familiar, so foreign’. Amy says, when speaking about her tonsils, ‘They leave you melancholy when they go’, which could equally be a comment upon her children leaving for camp, or even metaphorically, with their growing up. She does seem to relax slightly when in her Michigan life, and one touching sentence describes the way in which ‘She took their good-night kisses, still their child’.
Hull’s descriptions of place and weather are the definite strength of the novel. The summer is ‘tucked in at the horizon inescapably’, and the heat of the day was ‘wavering, full of unsteady motes’. Later on, the sun lays ‘metallic fingers at the roots of her [Amy’s] hair’. The writing style is very rich, but the conversations often feel a little stolid. Rather than providing a comment upon life in small-town America, Heat Lightning focuses upon family dynamics, and the family unit as a whole. It also presents a small insight into a relatively early twentieth century marriage, saying of Amy and Geoffrey, ”This past year their attitude toward each other had been a tight-rope on which she struggled, with painful, awkward contortions, to keep her balance. And Geoffrey – he had jiggled the tight-rope’.
Heat Lightning is an important addition to the Persephone list in that it does deal with some growing issues which women faced in the early 1930s – for example, Amy’s disillusionment with her new life and her relationship with her husband, and her cousin Harriet’s lesbianism: ‘My cousin Harriet is awfully modern, isn’t she?’ The novel itself is well written, but the meandering storyline is difficult to engross oneself into, and the characters, even those we know the most about, are difficult to feel compassion for. A sense of momentum is never really gained, and the novel feels a little flat in consequence. It is worth reading for the writing style alone, but the characters are neither strong nor realistic enough to warrant as much love for this particular Persephone title as they are in almost all of the other books the firm publishes.