1949 A personal quest amid weather extremes
Rains, At Times Heavy
by Debi Goodwin
Qualicum Beach: Caitlin Press, 2023
$25.00 / 9781773861227
Reviewed by Trish Bowering
These days, it’s near impossible to escape the news of extreme weather. In Death Valley, the temperatures recently topped 50 degrees Celsius. In our forests, fire has transformed so much of the landscape, smoke obscuring the blue summer sky. Elsewhere, flood waters wash away landscapes. Clearly the weather is a powerful transformative force. In Debi Goodwin’s new novel Rains, At Times Heavy, torrential downpour leads to flooding that sparks a tragedy. A woman’s subsequent search for healing takes her on quest that explores both the secrets of her past and a path forward.
Linden, named after a tree that symbolizes good luck, has had her share of misfortune. She’s inherited the family curse: their men die in the rains and waters of bad weather. She lost her grandfather Thomas to 1954’s Hurricane Hazel, a storm that lashed Toronto and caused the Humber River to swell, sowing destruction. Her father Michael died of pneumonia contracted during the monsoon rains in India; and her husband Matt’s car plunged into an icy river.
And Linden? She’s become a climatologist who records the unprecedented rainfalls of impending climate change. When she learns a long-held family secret that she has a half brother she never knew, Linden travels to a place that has always held peace and healing for her: the dry, arid lands of California’s Death Valley. Could reconnecting with her half-brother and working through the grief of widowhood help her break this family curse?
Goodwin (A Victory Garden for Trying Times) structures the novel from multiple points of view. Linden’s story is told from 2014 and acts as an anchor for the action, driving the story forwards even as we leap back in time to grandmother Abby’s experience of Hurricane Hazel and its aftermath in 1954; and to Varanasi, India in the 1970s, where Linden’s troubled father Michael is searching for meaning in the death of his father. These three main characters propel the action, their varied views of loss adding depth to the narrative.
Later, Goodwin introduces other points of view that were less enthralling, yet interesting nonetheless. The story proceeds forward at a good pace, and Goodwin’s writing is sharp and to the point. It’s evocative, too.
She writes beautifully of the landscapes, bringing them to life as though a character in their own right. It’s telling that Linden, the rainfall climatologist and a woman whose life has been transformed by rains, runs to Death Valley for solace. It is one of the driest places on earth, but the heat and stark beauty speak to her soul as she flees the wet. She even conceived her daughter there: “Linden believed, foolishly, that a child whose beginning was in the desert would be immune to the dangers of rain.” It’s is also a place where a single, torrential rainfall can alter the landscape. Rain, heat and fire are elements of nature that bring terrible suffering, but also great beauty and change.
Indeed, one of the most powerful themes in the book is the power of the natural elements to transform. Goodwin parallels unpredictable, powerful weather events and the unforeseen and often cataclysmic results for the characters. When Linden visits the Valley’s Mosaic Canyon, she contemplates the desiccated landscape, aware that one unpredictable rainfall event can result in a flash flood that will re-sculpt the terrain:
“…just a little rain high in the mountains can run down slopes, and then, unable to penetrate the mudstone left by an ancient lake, gain momentum and pick up small stones that shape and smooth the rock as the water pours through the canyon in flash floods so powerful they can knock over a truck. Or kill anyone in the way.”
It is both destructive and beautiful.
When Linden’s father Michael seeks answers in Varanasi, the Hindu god Shiva, the deity of destruction and transformation, becomes emblematic of his quest. Through Michael’s eyes we witness the transforming power of fire, as the funeral rites of a pyre fire transform a body to ash.
We see the rise and fall of the Ganges, as the monsoon seasons come and go, paralleling the human cycle of life. When Michael, far from his home, hears via letter that he is a father, he contemplates the generations:
“He stared into the muddy Ganges and visualized entering its engorged waters. But he could not imagine what would happen next. He might drown, like his father had in a different river, or emerge from the holy waters washed of his past, a new man, a good father.
He was a father not but not a good one. He had a daughter. He whispered her name four times: Linden. Linden. Linden. Linden…His mother’s letters said the baby was healthy, with blond hair like Paulette’s and green eyes like his, which he hoped would not mean she’d come to see the world as he did.”
With transformation comes grief, which Goodwin brings to life on the page. She writes with such a sense of foreboding and sadness at times.
In 1954, Hurricane Hazel is storming, the river is rising, and Linden’s grandfather Thomas is at the riverside helping out. Her grandmother Abby is ever watchful as she guards her small children at home, but knows something is not right. The impending danger is so huge and real on the page, like grief anticipated. Goodwin does it again in 1976 with Michael’s slow decline and death in Varanasi: as readers, we know the end is coming–the transformation from life to death to ash is inexorable–but the beauty of it, and the horrid loss, feel dreamlike and melancholic. Now, Linden is left to mourn all these men and to make some sense of their loss.
Goodwin comments not only on grief for our loved ones, but also for the life of our planet. Though not a novel about climate change, this crisis is an ever-present hum in the background:
“And yet thousands, no millions, would die in extreme weather: in droughts, heavy rainfalls, rising seas and heat waves. Without mitigation, the planet’s temperatures would rise faster each year, more of the planet would become as hot as Death Valley and Death Valley would become not just inhospitable but too deadly for any life…”
Having lost family to unpredictable weather, one way Linden copes is to measure rainfall and to compulsively check the weather forecasts.Although it makes her feel safe, the irony is that, inevitably, climate change is coming, and she sees it in the rain and the heat. It is the ultimate transformation.
For something new to take form, something is always lost. Life moves forward like a river; some characters, like Michael in Varanasi, are lost in a circling current, trying to find meaning but not quite able to. Linden seeks healing by revisiting her past to say goodbye in the landscape of Death Valley. In doing so, she is able to adapt, and to transform her loss into something new, connecting with her lost half-brother and opening to the possibility of new love: “…if disasters of weather don’t happen here, they will happen elsewhere, and more frequently than in the past. All Linden can do in her work is record, report and warn. But in her own time, in the days she has left to her, she has a choice to make: live as though disaster is just around the corner, or live, really live, in the gaps of calm.”
Ultimately, transformation brings new relationships and a reunion with her grandmother Abby at the side of Toronto’s Humber River. Is this family’s curse truly broken? Was there ever a curse at all, or just nature acting as it always has? Perhaps it doesn’t matter in the end; the currents of our lives are fickle, and connections found and valued are all the more precious for it.
Tricia Bowering lives in Vancouver, where she is immersed in reading, writing and vegetable gardening. She has an undergraduate degree in Psychology from the University of Victoria, and obtained her M.D. from the University of British Columbia. Now retired from her medical practice, she focuses on her love of all things literary. She blogs at TrishTalksBooks.com and reviews on Instagram @trishtalksbooks.
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster