Just as Jeremiah Goodbye is set to meet his fate in the electric chair, he is given a second chance at life. With the flip of a coin, he decides to return to his home town of Nowhere, Oklahoma, to settle the score with his twin brother Josiah. But upon his escape, he enters a world he doesn’t recognize—one that has been overtaken by the Dust Bowl. And the gift he once relied on to guide him is as unrecognizable as the path back to Nowhere. On his journey home, he accidentally rescues a young boy, and the pair arrive at their destination where they are greeted by darkened skies and fearful townspeople who have finally begun to let the past few years of hardship bury them under the weight of all that dust. Unlikely heroes, Jeremiah and his new companion, Peter Cotton, try to protect the residents of Nowhere from themselves, but Jeremiah must face his nightmares and free himself from the guilt of his past and the secrets that destroyed his family. Filled with mystery and magic, this exquisite novel from award-winning author James Markert is a story of finding hope in the midst of darkness and discovering the beauty of unexpected kindness.
POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This novel's plot has a brief mention of cutting as well as descriptions of animals being clubbed to death.
Death Row inmate Jeremiah Goodbye, dubbed the "Coin Flip Killer" by the newspapers, had just been placed in the electric chair, receiving the first few seconds of execution, when a twister rips through town, taking out one wall of the execution room. Seeing that the prison staff around him has been killed, Jeremiah flees the scene and heads back to his hometown of Nowhere, Oklahoma with plans to confront twin brother Josiah.
On his way to Nowhere, Jeremiah comes across a family and stops what he realizes is the sale of a child, Peter Cotton. Peter decides he's going to accompany Jeremiah on his journey to Nowhere. Jeremiah initially resists, but once he sees how determined Peter is to stay, he figures there's not much to be done but let the kid tag along. Peter struggles with speech, mainly just parroting back anything said to him. Successful communication looks to be incredibly challenging until Jeremiah realizes they can build a system around pointing, head nods, and supplying paper for the typewriter Peter always has with him.
When the duo arrive in Nowhere, it's evident just how severely the area has been affected by the Dust Bowl. Where once there were green landscapes and clean creeks, the landscape is now smothered in ever growing mounds of dust and debris (at times, the descriptions of Nowhere brought to mind images of Radiator Springs from Pixar's Cars). Jeremiah reunites with father Wilmington (who carries a bullet in his head courtesy of a ricochet from Jeremiah's firing during a shootout years before), brother Josiah, and Josiah's wife, Ellen. Though married to his brother now, Ellen has a history with Jeremiah, a brief secret romance that resulted in a miscarried child.
Not many people in Nowhere seem all that excited about Jeremiah's return. The majority of the town still see him as a stone cold killer, even though he's always proclaimed his innocence on the murder charges, claiming it was merely a "wrong place, wrong time" kind of misunderstanding. Josiah doesn't think too highly of his brother but Wilmington and Ellen try to give the man the benefit of a doubt. Either way, the reality is he remains an escaped convict pushed to face his personal demons and rectify past wrongs.
What Blooms From Dust offers a believable depiction of what the Dust Bowl era must have been like -- the clogged air, the constant struggle to breathe, the illnesses that came from breathing in grit on a daily basis --- the dust itself almost reads like one of the story's antagonists. Characters comment on how it "seems alive", intent on breaking one's spirit (plus all the shudder inducing talk of tarantulas!). As the frequency and intensity of the storms increases, it saps peoples' will to live... but quiet Peter Cotton has an idea on how to bring the town back around.
As always, Markert incorporates a sprinkle of otherworldly seasoning into the plot, developing a mysterious link between Peter Cotton and the miscarried child. Peter also plays a pivotal role in pulling the citizens of Nowhere out of their various funks, helping them finally air old grievances. I found myself cracking up at the "magic" that falls over Nowhere. A tourism package could be crafted just around the idea of giving people a place to come, stay, and hash out all long-standing feuds with friends, family, or co-workers without judgement! Slam dunk financial windfall for the place!
POTENTIAL TRIGGER NOTE TO READERS: Not only does the plot make a brief mention of one character's experiences with cutting, but there's also one scene that describes Nowhere's town "rabbit drive", where every so often the citizens come out, herd up jackrabbits, and club them to death. Animal lovers, consider yourselves warned! I will say though, I read similar descriptions of the rabbit clubbing in Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust, so it's perhaps a historically accurate detail.
Though the environment development is nicely crafted, the plot itself was much slower than Markert's previous novels. Markert makes a mention in the acknowledgements that this book had a rushed deadline "but luckily it practically wrote itself". However, in my opinion it's one of his weaker novels, plot-wise. The pace is slower, but things do pick up some after the arrival of reporter Rose Buchanan. Still, I sometimes found myself struggling to maintain interest, which is not a problem I typically have with this author's works.
That said, this novel does offer a nice overall message in the way it illustrates how powerful a tool kindness can be in combating evil.
"You're a special kind of child, Jeremiah. We thought you'd never come out, and when you did, well, perhaps one day I'll let your father tell you about that. But I'll go to my grave knowing that those night scares you have, they all stem from what happened after you were delivered. I'm telling you, only the strongest of the strong could overcome what you did. You know what I think? I think life and death were wrestling over you, Jeremiah. Or maybe it was good and evil. Yes, that's how I look upon it now. And you were just too darn stubborn to give in without a fight."
Discussion questions are made available at the back of the book for those interested in this one as a possible book club pick.
FTC DISCLAIMER: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.