Holed up at the station as KUHF deals with Hurricane Ike and we work to get as much information about what's happening where out to our listeners, I've got some down time and want to put it to good use.
Ike has been my first experience of a hurricane, and obviously in such a situation our regular concerns get swept away with the first elevated winds of the storm. But now that the eye has passed us by and left its indelible mark, I can write a blog entry that has some cultural relevance.
It occurred to me as the winds reached hurricane force last night and prepared to make landfall at Galveston that about 10 years ago I read an excellent novel set against the backdrop of the infamous hurricane of 1900 that completely devastated the coastal city.
Galveston, Texas, was struck on September 8th, 1900, by a Category 4 storm that packed winds of 135 mph. Official reports state that 8,000 people lost their lives making the "Great Storm" (this was before authorities began assigning alphabetical names to tropical storms) the U.S.'s deadliest natural disaster to date.
At the end of the 19th century, Galveston was a boomtown with a population of 42,000. It was the biggest city in Texas, and it's trade center. The Great Storm put paid to Galveston's pre-eminence, and Houston grew to fill the void.
The hurricane significantly changed the course of Texas history.
Benjamin Taylor's debut novel, Tales Out of School (Grand Central Publishing, 1997) is set against the Great Storm and the havoc it wreaks on the Mehmel family. The year is 1907, and Felix Mehmel, whose father died in the hurricane, is coming of age in Galveston among the members of his German-Jewish family, a family that seems to be disintegrating.
Stuck as I am at the KUHF studios, I don't have my copy of Tales Out of School to hand to refresh my memory. However, the book was recently reprinted by Steerforth Press, and here's what the jacket says:
"The strange hothouse world of Galveston Island has been good to the Mehmels, German Jewish immigrants who prosper there in the late nineteenth century, and whose second generation is still flush when we meet them as the century turns. But destruction -- moral and natural, including the great hurricane that nearly destroyed the city -- is not far off, and for bookish, fourteen-year-old grandson Felix, last of the line, salvation lies in self-discovery. Pried away from his Ovid and Virgil, he is seduced by the rough, handsome bully who has always taunted him. And over the sultry summer of 1907, he asserts his independence, launching into manhood even as his family's morale, sanity, and fortunes wane. Erotic as it is exalted, defiantly comic as it is sad, Tales Out of School is a significant, enduring novel by a masterful writer poised to take his place at the forefront of contemporary American fiction."
Publishers Weekly described Tales Out of School as "elegant, lyrical and elegiac" while Library Journal said the novel "combines grand lyric musings with realistic social commentary."
As the Houston-Galveston area once more recovers from a severe storm, we can take some small comfort perhaps in knowing that such cataclysmic events can give rise to great art.