Things You’d Know If You Grew Up Around Here by Nancy Wayson Dinan
Bloomsbury, May 2020
336 pages – fiction
Counterintuitively, Texas leads the nation in flood-related deaths. In the Hill Country, when a drought breaks, what looks like respite can fast become calamity. Things You Would Know If You Grew Up Around Here, the debut novel of Nancy Wayson Dinan, takes the real-life Memorial Day Floods of 2015 and spins them into a terrifying tale of our capacity for denial.
The book’s teenage heroine, Boyd Montgomery, has a super-power of dubious desirability: attunement to suffering. She is a “dowser,” turned “not to water, but to pain.” Unsurprisingly, her ability to feel the hurt of others makes high school tough. One of the only people she can be around is her level-headed boyfriend, Isaac.
Then, on the weekend of Boyd’s grandfather’s wedding, the record-long drought breaks. Cell phones cut out, and Boyd senses that Isaac has been trapped in the rising floodwaters. As she journeys towards him, dams burst their banks and a reckoning is demanded of her by the ghosts of Texas past. Meanwhile, Carla, a family friend, goes in search of Boyd, followed by Lucy-Maud (Boyd’s mother), and Maud’s estranged husband, Kevin.
I read this three-hundred-page book in one sitting. Dinan moves through the storm via series of timestamps which create a velocity well-suited to the elemental force at the heart of this novel. As Carla gets lost and Lucy-Maud and Kevin effect a rescue from a cave filling with water, cross-cutting between threads keeps readers on edge.
On the level of language, Dinan’s prose is spare in the tradition of the western, but in carries in that emptiness a poetry. She shows us the mud-strafed land, roots the earth has ripped asunder, and rivers coursing with sediment, but her practiced eye also captures the beauty amidst ruin and peace after the wrack. Many moments are overflowing with sensory detail. Vignettes stick stubbornly in the mind, as with this description of the flood’s aftermath: “In the countryside for weeks after, the vultures circles the river banks, pecking the eyes of the giant carp that had been caught in the barbed wire when the rivers crested the fences.” Such clear, unfussy prose is a pleasure to read, especially as, like a gushing river, it accumulates the gravity of earth and time.
That Dinan grew up in the Central Texas area should come as no surprise to readers. She punctuates the story with gem-like historical interludes, which range from tales of the lost treasure of the San Saba Mine, descriptions of extinct megafauna like the Glyptodont, and the myriad ways the land has been repeatedly drilled, dammed, and decimated. Such moments never feel like research, but instead like a rag-and-bone collection of lore over a lifetime. Or maybe giant carp caught in a barbed-wire fence. The snippets loop non-Texan readers into this storied culture.
“[H]ow this earth works,” writes Dinan, is that “everything that came before bleeds through.” In the end, Things You’d Know presents the planet as our ledger. The storm is a liminal space into which the earth disgorges specters, and as Boyd moves through it, she encounters ghosts, such as those of a German pioneering couple searching for their dead son. The past also seeps into the present through Isaac’s father’s obsession with the San Saba Mine. Throughout the book, the omnipresence of gold (both “bright Glamour” and “dark and thwarting Fate”) suggests that although legend create culture, they can be dangerously seductive. How many brutal realities of colonialization have been buried beneath myths of terra nullius, American exceptionalism, and the moral right to enrichment?
Some light magical realism throughout the book amplifies this parable-like sense, although the allegorical aspect never feels over-done. The most gob-smacking revelations throughout the book are founded in fact: previously drowned towns can re-emerge from lakes, some Texans pay college tuition with panned bags of gold-dust, during floods trees become arks for animal escapees. In moments, the earth cries out to Boyd. In others, it sends creepers and mud to reclaim her. This earth is no peaceful Mother Gaia, however; it is a shrieking, dying thing. As the greatest threat in the novel is the documentable change to our planet, a more appropriate genre description for the book might be apocalyptic fabulism.
Or maybe an even better term would merge the genres of “cli-fi” and “click-lit.” Might I suggest, “cli(t)-lit?” Because this book is also unabashedly woman-centered. The female protagonist goes out to rescue her beau from where he is snagged in a tree. Unlike Catniss Eberdeen of The Hunger Games, however, Boyd is no master of a traditionally male form of warfare. Empathy is an intriguing superpower to bestow on a character, especially given how incivility and political polarization (due to an empathy deficit, one might argue) have made every conversation about climate change political. Refreshingly, Dinan’s female characters turn from domination to communication, and listen to the land rather than subordinate it. Meanwhile, while women can traverse the poles of the physical and emotional worlds, the male characters remain largely suck, whether in a tree or a water-filled pit. In a direct reflection of choices facing many women today, Boyd must even decide whether to continue the emotional labor her gift demands.
I’m not saying that this book is a veiled claim that female socialization can prevent climate change; I may be reading into it. But at the very least, Dinan interrogates the hyper-masculine works of Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry, which fetishize an individualistic relationship to the land. She presents an alternative: the woman’s western. That makes this book far more than a riveting read. Here is a message, author, and new genre, to which we need to pay attention.
Kate Osana Simonian is Armenian-Australian writer whose work focuses on sexuality, mental health, immigration, and speculative genres. Since moving from Sydney to the US, she’s completed an English PhD and published in The Iowa Review, Michigan Quarterly, Chicago Tribune, and Best Australian Stories. This year, she’s revising her debut novel, The Dark Palace, for which she won a John Steinbeck Fellowship (2020-21). California State University, San Bernadino, is where she is fortunate enough to teach.