INDIANAPOLIS — Deborah Kennedy knows that often the best stories are found in small places.
Kennedy and I talk over the air about her just-published first novel, “Tornado Weather,” which has earned rave reviews. That’s rare for a first book, but the plaudits are well-deserved.
“Tornado Weather” tells the story of Colliersville, a fictional town in northern Indiana. A young girl in a wheelchair, Daisy Gonzalez, goes missing, but that’s not really the story. The story is the town, the people who live in it and even the people who left it. Kennedy provides vignettes of their lives — and how those lives are interwoven — with microscopic insight.
In many ways, her book is like Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio,” albeit with a mystery rather than a central character tying everything together.
It isn’t surprising that Kennedy can write about Indiana with such precision.
Although she lives now in Portland, Oregon, Kennedy is a Hoosier. She was born and grew up in Fort Wayne, where her late father encouraged her love of reading by making trips to the library a weekly adventure. She traveled to southern Indiana to go to college at Hanover, then went to work as a reporter and editor for a series of small newspapers and publications in Indiana and Kentucky. Eventually, she attended the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa and received a master’s degree from Miami University.
She learned to tell people’s stories, she says, the old-fashioned way, by talking with them, listening to them and treating their concerns, fears, desires and hopes with consideration.
If there is one quality that elevates Kennedy’s fine book, it is the empathy with which she writes. There are characters in “Tornado Weather” who aren’t pleasant people, but Kennedy’s tone isn’t condemnatory. Even when she is writing about bigotry, greed or some other paucity of spirit, she doesn’t wag her finger or scold. She lets us see the fear or the insecurity or the other hidden hurt that gave birth to the meanness.
In this era when Americans left, right and center spend more time judging each other than listening to each other, hers is a rare accomplishment.
Her buried thesis that life would be a lot easier for all of us if we spent more time trying to understand each other and less energy demeaning each other is advanced with a gentle, knowing touch.
I ask Kennedy how important place is to her writing.
She smiles, says it’s at the center of how she writes and then she delivers a small rhapsody about Indiana.
She says she realized when she landed in Indianapolis, fresh from the Pacific Northwest via the recycled air of plane travel, that Indiana has its own scent, earthy and real.
“I miss it,” she says wistfully. “It smells like home.”
Then Kennedy talks about the other things she misses about Indiana, the open vistas and flat stretches of northern Indiana, “the strip malls, believe it or not” and the people.
She’s “finished” — minus the editing and rewriting that are part of publishing every book — another novel, this one set in Oregon and started on her third.
It, too, is set in the fictional small Indiana town of Colliersville. The lives of the characters keep pulling her back, she says, making her want to explore their stories some more. The deeper she dives into those characters, she says, the more interesting they become.
Sometimes, the best stories are found in small places.
Places that smell like home.