Almost thirty years ago, I was part of an informal writers’ group located in the Fort Worth/Dallas area. We called ourselves the Higher Arts Council – and yes, of course we pronounced it “hack”. The first meeting was held in a small sandwich shop in Arlington, near the UTA campus, and to the best of my memory, five people were in attendance: me, Warren Norwood, Geo. W. Proctor, Bob Vardeman (Proctor’s good friend and frequent collaborator who lived in New Mexico but was visiting him at the time), and Sandra Brown. I knew who Sandra was because I’d seen her doing some weather forecasts on one of the local TV stations, and because her husband Michael Brown was the host of a morning show on the same station. I wasn’t aware until then that she wanted to be a writer, too, and had, in fact, recently sold her first novel, LOVE’S ENCORE, which Dell published later that year as part of its Candlelight Romance line, under the pseudonym Rachel Ryan – a pen-name derived from the names of her kids, Sandra explained to us.
The hacks’ meetings continued for several years and expanded to include many other writers from the area, including Neal Barrett Jr., Kerry Newcomb, and Laura Parker. I don’t recall Sandra attending any of the other meetings, so that was the only time I’ve met her. I have, however, read quite a few of her books over the years. She quickly became a best-selling author of romantic suspense novels, and she’s one of the very best at that genre, in my opinion. Many of her novels that were published as category romances also have suspense and thriller elements in them and are worth reading. She has that storyteller’s knack of being able to keep the readers turning the pages at a rapid clip.
Which brings us to her recent novel RAINWATER.
As she explains in the brief note that opens the book, she wrote this novel on spec, something she probably hasn’t done since breaking in back in 1981. Instead of romance or romantic suspense, it’s more of a mainstream novel set in a small town in central Texas in 1934, at the height of the depression. There’s a modern-day framing sequence that flashes back to the story of Ella Barron, who runs a boardinghouse in Gilead, Texas, and tries to cope with her mentally disturbed ten-year-old son Solly (short for Solomon). The local doctor thinks that Solly is too much of a burden for Ella as a single parent (what happened to her husband is one of several mysteries that gets resolved in the course of the book) and ought to be institutionalized. Ella is determined to keep Solly at home and do the best she can for him, though. Then a mysterious new boarder named David Rainwater shows up and changes everything.
It would have been easy for Brown to turn this into a standard romance novel, but she doesn’t. Rainwater has secrets that make that impossible. In a plotline that’s reminiscent of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, the town’s bigoted bully-in-chief harasses not only the local black community but also the poor whites who have lost their homes in the Depression. There’s plenty of drama, along with a healthy slice of small-town Americana, before everything comes to a head in a surprising but very effective conclusion. Then Brown springs a nice last-minute twist that I didn’t see coming and makes the book even better.
I really like Depression-era fiction, and Brown does a fine job capturing the setting and the time period. Back in the Sixties there were a lot of little Texas towns that hadn’t really changed much since the Thirties, and having been around many of those, I felt like I had been to Gilead, too. RAINWATER is an excellent novel, one of the best I’ve read this year, and if you’re looking for a change of pace, I highly recommend it.