Book review: “Storm” by George R. Stewart

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Book review: “Storm” by George R. Stewart

Early in George R. Stewart’s Storm (1941), the new Junior Meteorologist in the San Francisco office of the U.S. Weather Bureau is putting the finishing touches on a map that spans a good portion of the Earth, from the eastern edge of Asia, across the Pacific, across North America, to the western edge of the Atlantic.

In these early pre-dawn hours, he has been recording temperatures, wind velocities and barometric pressures on the large piece of paper so that the Chief Meteorologist will be able to use the map to make his forecast for the day.

Then, Stewart writes:

He laid aside his eraser and colored pencils, and sat back to look at the work. Involuntarily, he breathed a little more deeply. To him, as to some archangel hovering in the ninth heaven, the weather lay revealed.

In many ways, this scene captures the whole of Storm. The map that covers such a large swath of the planet is an indication of the great sweep of Stewart’s story of a single January storm that hits San Francisco and its region.

storm---- stewart 2

Like the weather, Storm is a sprawling saga, ranging across the oceans and land masses of the Junior Meteorologist’s map and beyond. The stories of individual people and places are intertwined — and, through the weather, interconnected.

After all, weather at any place on the Earth’s surface, as Stewart explains, is the product of many complex inter-relationships:

Gravity, inertia, electricity, the spherical shape of the earth, its rotation, the ocean-currents, the contrasts between water and land and between desert and forest, the height of mountains, the compressibility of air, the almost explosive qualities of water-vapor — these and other forces combine to produce the weather.

 

“Between tight-drawn lips”

The scene with the Junior Meteorologist looking at his map with pride and a bit of awe — like “some archangel hovering in the ninth heaven” — is an example of Stewart’s skill as a writer.

A similar example of finding an apt metaphor comes later in the book when he is writing about how the different varieties of trees handle the heavy loads of snow they get high in the mountains. He writes:

Beneath their loads the fir trees stood stiffly — like Puritans, prim and uncompromising — saying between tight-drawn lips, “We shall not bend, though we break.”

Another example is his description of the movement of a polar front down into the center of North America:

But elsewhere, here and there, the line of the polar front bulged southward, as the crowd pushes forward against the police line, not everywhere, but at spots where those who are boldest or angriest, most wronged or most desperate, whisper to one another and make ready for the sudden push.

An archangel, a Puritan, a mob — these are metaphors that raise Storm high above any run-of-the-mill novel.

 

“Then was still”

George R. Stewart in 1949

George R. Stewart in 1949

In that scene with the newly minted weather map, note how Stewart uses the young man’s job title instead of his name.

This is a technique he employs throughout the novel. The reader never learns the weatherman’s name. Nor is the reader told the names of other officials who have to grapple with the storm, such as the District Traffic Superintendent of the phone company, the Chief Service Office at the airport and the Load Dispatcher of the power company.

Stewart is a strong novelist and gives each of these people enough of a personality that the lack of a name doesn’t matter. And there’s a strategy involved here as well.

When he does give a character a name — such as Rick the lineman, airline pilot “Big Al” Brunnton, and Jen Stongliff and her guy friend Max Arnim — the reader relates to them more directly. Unlike the officials trying to protect all of the people in the region from the pounding rain, snow and flooding, these are characters who find themselves caught in the middle of the raging weather.

They are stand-ins for the reader. And the reader feels it when, for instance, one of the named characters, driving on a wet highway, spots a 2-by-4 and a pile of gardener’s fertilizer on the roadway.

By quick automatic reaction he swerved to the left, felt his wheels skid, and straightened out.

But the film of sodden manure which had spread across the wet pavement was so slippery that the tires could get no grip. The car skidded off the road, rolled over twice, and landed on its top with a terrific crash. With a shudder as of a dying animal, the car — its four wheels in the air — vibrated for a moment, and then was still.

 

“Neither love nor hate”

There are many characters in Storm, but the central one is the storm itself, living out its 12-day lifespan.

Stewart notes that, throughout history, humans have tended to personify the weather, especially bad weather — to see a god or gods wreaking havoc on Earth out of anger or ignorance or for enjoyment.

Of all lands and people is the roll-call of the storm gods. Zeus the cloud-gatherer, lord of lightning. Adad-Ramman, the duplex, sender to the Babylonia plain alike of nourishing rain and devastating tempest. Jupiter of the rain; Thor, the thunderer; Indra, freer of the waters. Pulugu of the Bengal saw, before whose wrath the pigmy Adamanese cower low. Kilima, Mahu, Dzakuta, Pase-Kamui of the Ainus; Asiak who rules the air above the far-off northern ice. Tlaloc of Mexico, thundering from his mountain-top…And what of Jehovah? Jehovah who poured the Deluge forty days and forty nights…

No wonder, then, that war terminology is used in forecasting. For instance, the weather fronts in the novel, as well as today, recall the Eastern Front and the Western Front of World War I. However, as Stewart points out, that is due primarily to the fact that early breakthroughs in meteorological research occurred “in the years following 1914, a time when such military expressions were on everyone’s tongue.”

It didn’t have to be that way, he writes:

Had the discovery been made in more peaceful years, man (who involuntarily tries to humanize nature) would perhaps have derived a term from marriage rather than war. This comparison also is apt — love, as well as hate, arise between unlikes, and love like hate breeds violent encounters.

Best of all would be to use words unrelated to human feelings. These great storms know neither love nor hate.

That’s the bottom line of Storm. The tempest is a blind act of Nature that reminds humans of how small and fragile we are in the face of the Universe.

 

Stewart’s many-faceted talent

Storm is a wonderful novel, and it’s also a rich time capsule. Because Stewart looks at the storm from so many vantage points, it’s possible to get a sense of how life was nearly three-quarters of a century ago in the U.S.

Not so much daily, breakfast-in-the-kitchen life, but how life went on behind the scenes so that everyone could live their routine days — how the planes and trains operated and dealt with bad weather, and the power and phone companies, and those who worried about flooding and the water supply.

And Storm is a meaty example of George R. Stewart’s many-faceted talent.

Stewart, who died in 1980 at the age of 85, was an English professor at the University of California, Berkley. And a historian, and an early ecologist, and a speculative anthropologist, and an important science-fiction writer, and an expert about the names of people and places.

stewart-three.combo

His history books included Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party (1936, expanded 1942) and Pickett’s Charge: A Microhistory of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863 (1959, revised 1963), both of which are important and compelling accounts of those significant historic events.

The most famous of his novels was Earth Abides (1949) which tells of Isherwood Williams trying to stay alive and build an existence in a post-apocalyptic landscape, left almost totally empty by a deadly plague. The winner of the inaugural International Fantasy Award, Earth Abides has consistently been ranked by Locus Magazine among the best science fiction books of all time, and has been called “one of the finest of all Post-Holocaust/Ruined Earth novels” by The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

stewart-name.combo

Stewart, a founding member of the American Name Society, wrote four books about names: Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place Naming in the United States (1945), A Concise Dictionary of American Place-Names (1970), Names on the Globe (1975) and American Given Names (1979).

stewart-other.combo

In a real way, Stewart’s versatile literary skill, his wide-ranging interests and his emphasis on linking human stories with stories of the land combined to keep him in the shadows. He was never much of a star in any single bookish arena.

And it’s true today.

Yet, many people still read his book on Pickett’s charge. And many others read his Ordeal by Hunger. And others, his Earth Abides.

He has a small measure of fame in several genres. Maybe that’s fame enough to keep his work alive.

I hope so.

Patrick T. Reardon
6.24.15

3 Comments

  1. Although I sent a message, this seems a good place to repeat it:

    As the authorized biographer of GRS, I was happy to discover this fine review of Storm, and his other work. I was also happy to find your excellent review of his work in the Chicago Tribune’s literary emagazine. I helped provide the photo for the Trib review, and linked to it in the GRS/EA weblog (which is listed below).

    Thanks,

    Donald M. Scott

  2. PS: A clarification: I linked to your Trib article, not the photo!

    And it might be noted that Storm is the book which inspired the naming of storms.

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