I read Meghan Kenny’s debut novel The Driest Season over the course of a weekend. Between the usual weekend stuff—errands and cleaning and roasting a chicken for Sunday dinner—I curled up on my couch and lost myself in Boaz, Wisconsin, in the summer of 1943, and in the life of Cielle, Kenny’s teenage protagonist, and what happens to her during the weeks after her father’s suicide.
The novel is compact at just under 200 pages, inviting an almost binge-like reading experience. And while the length certainly made it easy to say “just one more chapter” before washing the breakfast dishes or running to the grocery store, it’s the story itself that makes it difficult to stop reading.
Kenny grabs her readers from the first sentence, an opening that I will not soon forget: “In that driest season, Cielle’s father hanged himself in the barn. A rope tied to a beam above stacked bales of hay, a wheelbarrow, rusted cans. Cielle found him.” What follows is the story of a young woman trying to understand a world without her father, while also trying to understand her own place in the world.
Her father’s suicide thrusts the reader into Cielle’s world. It is through the lense of this event that we meet Cielle’s mother and her older sister, Helen. Because the story is told in a close third person from Cielle’s perspective, our impression of these two characters is colored by how Cielle perceives them. Her disapproval of Helen’s desire to marry their neighbor Bodie Mitchell after high school graduation. Her confusion at her mother’s behavior—bathing during the drought and refusing to leave the farm truck as a tornado approaches—after her father’s death. Cielle’s relationship with her mother and sister is complex and nuanced, and Kenny skillfully shows how these three women strive to heal in the wake of familial tragedy.
The Driest Season is a quiet novel, largely character-focused, but it is not without tension. In addition to being the means by which the reader meets Cielle and her family, her father’s suicide also serves as a central source of conflict throughout the novel. The reader learns the most about Cielle, about who she is and how she relates to the world around her, as she attempts to understand the events surrounding her father’s death and the broader implications it has on her family’s livelihood. There are other bursts of action throughout, like the tornado that razes the family’s barn and a horse riding accident that injures a neighbor, but the tension is largely anchored in Cielle’s grieving and growth.
The reader has access to Cielle’s innermost thoughts as she grieves, but also as she questions, watches, and observes. When she asks, “How do people forgive and move on? What mattered and kept anyone caring about what they did, how they did it, or with whom they did it if in the end they would die and it would all be over, gone, forgotten, dark, dust in the ground, a name on a headstone?”, we understand that while Cielle is observant and introspective, she is still a young woman trying to find herself. The way she processes her personal tragedy also becomes a way of understanding the larger tragedies that lurk at the periphery of the novel: the drought, the war, and the inevitable passage of time.
It is in these subtle shifts in scope, the personal to the universal, that the novel truly shines. In The Driest Season, Kenny has written a beautiful coming-of-age novel that is also an exploration of how loss and grief affects both families and entire communities.