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Wide Blue Yonder

A Novel

About The Book

From National Book Award-finalist Jean Thompson comes a compelling, highly charged novel about a family ruled by the weather, the drastic changes that hit their atmosphere, and a midwestern town where chaos doesn't reign -- it pours.
Something big is headed for Springfield, Illinois, a place where weather of all kinds -- climatic, emotional, and even metaphysical -- tends to come in extremes. It is the summer of 1999, and through the long months of blazing heat and fearsome tempests, a quirky quartet of locals will try to ride out the stormy season, each in their own way.
Uncle Harvey believes he is the embodiment of the Weather Channel's "Local Forecast," even though all meteorological evidence points to the contrary. His niece, Josie, is fixed with a different predicament -- she's young and pretty, with nowhere to go except into deep trouble. Her mother, Elaine, lives under a façade of cheerful efficiency, desperately masking a far more urgent quest. And all of them are caught in the path of the loner Rolando -- a human cyclone from the West, fueled by a boundless rage and determined to make Springfield the focal point of his wrath.


Chapter One: There Is Always Weather

Beige Woman was saying Strong Storms. She brushed her hand over the map and drew bands of color in her wake. All of Illinois was angry red. A cold front currently draped across Oklahoma, a raggedy spiderweb thing, was going to scuttle eastward and slam up against your basic Warm Moist Air From the Gulf. The whole witch's brew had been bubbling up for the last few days and now it was right on the doorstep. Beige Woman dropped her voice half an octave to indicate the serious nature of the situation, and Local Forecast nodded to show he understood.

Then he got up to see if the coffee was ready. It wasn't quite; he stood watching it drip drip drip. When he poured milk in his cup it swirled like clouds. The sky outside was milk as well, milk over thin blue. Local Forecast stood on the back porch steps and turned his nose to the southwest, where all the trouble would come from later. He sniffed and squinted and tried to tease the front out of the unhelpful sky, but it stayed as shut as any door.

Back inside it was Man In A Suit's turn. He stood, palm up, balancing Texas by its tip. Texas was green today. Florida was full of orange suns. Man In A Suit tickled the Atlantic coastline and whorls of ridged white sprang up, high pressure. Then jet stream arrows came leaping out of the northwest, blue and swift, full of icy glittering.

There was always Weather. And every minute there was a new miracle.

Coffee and cereal, then fifteen toe touches. Fat Cat rubbed at his ankles and got in the way. He couldn't reach his toes anymore. He got all purply and out of breath. He was old. Plus it was humid this morning, 93 percent, as you might expect on a Strong Storms day. He let his head hang and peered at the screen from between his legs. He had a glimpse of upside-down palm trees, which puzzled him for a moment before he straightened and collided with the couch, anxious to get turned around and watch properly.

Tropical Update. He'd almost forgotten, with all the storm news. It was June the First, official start of Hurricane Season. Now he'd missed it and would have to wait through twenty minutes of insurance commercials and such before the next Update. He settled back in the couch. Fat Cat poured into his lap and solidified there, thrumming away. The big map was on and he fixed his eyes on the exact center of Illinois, You Are Here, the place the Weather lived.

Of course, you didn't get hurricanes in Illinois. You couldn't have everything. For hurricanes there were special people to show you how bad it was. The ocean going lumpy and gray as the storm moved in. Then came the galloping wires and sideways rain and the riven treetops. The announcer all tied up in a parka hood and staggering to keep upright. Water droplets blurring the camera lens. Local Forecast felt his heart grow large, thinking of their bravery. Sometimes if it was really bad, they were only voices on the phone, a lonely scratched-up sound that left you to imagine the shriek and slam of those water-soaked winds, the darkness closing in.

The blue screen came on. The Local Forecast. Blue blue blue, deep glowing indigo, like an astronaut would see from outer space. As long as there was the blue, there would be Weather.

He had to pee. He always had to pee nowadays, nothing down there worked the way it should. He got up, spilling his lapful of insulted cat. And wouldn't you know, when he got back from flushing, the Update had started and any second now they'd show the names. Names for the new hurricane season, storms that hadn't been born yet. Ocean currents not yet warmed, wind: not yet beginning to eddy. Come on come on come on.

Arlene, Bert, Cindy, Dennis, Emily, Floyd, Gert, Harvey...

His eyes stopped right there. Harvey was his other name.

And since there were, as Man In A Suit said, an average of nine named storms every season and six hurricanes, the odds were on his side. He pitied people with names like Rita or Stan, who were pretty much out of the running. Hurricane Harvey! The mere possibility sent him bounding around the room, making hurricane noises. Hurricane Harvey, a spinning white spiral tilting now toward Florida, now toward the Bahamas, considering a jaunt up the East Coast. People boarding up windows and laying in batteries and bottled water. Waves eating beach houses bite by bite. Of course you wouldn't want anyone to die. He'd feel terrible. He hoped at least he'd be an American hurricane, where they could handle these things a little better.

Meanwhile there were Strong Storms to worry about, no more than twelve hours away. His skin prickled with energy. Godamighty. He stood in the shower and yodeled. The steam from the shower mixed with the clammy air so the shower was more or less wasted, but who cared. He hopped around the room one-legged to get his pants on, then fell back, oof, on the bed. He paddled himself upright and launched himself out the front door, but first he turned the sound down on the Weather so they'd get a break from talking while he was gone.

There was one street you walked to get to the grocery and another street you took on the way back. Local Forecast kept his feet moving smartly along in spite of the heat. Humidity was down to 84 percent, still darn high. The miserability index. The grocery doors whooshed open and the cold canned air blessed the back of his neck. Lettuce bread lightbulbs cat food hamburger hamburger hamburger. He grabbed a cart and skated down the aisle.

"Whoa there, Harvey."

Bump bump. Local Forecast looked up. The carts were all tangled together in a chrome thicket. The stranger made a tsk sound and reached down to unhook them.

"What's the big hurry? Not fixing to rain, is it?"

"Sunny, high in the mid-eighties. Becoming cloudy by mid-day. Showers and thunderstorms possible by late afternoon. Some of these storms could be severe, with heavy rains and damaging winds. Chance of rain seventy percent."

"That so," the stranger said agreeably. He had a big pink face and shiny eyeglasses. Local Forecast waited for him to go away but he turned his cart around and walked it alongside Local Forecast, like the two of them were mothers pushing baby carriages together. "Well, then I'm going to need some rainy-day groceries."

He steered them down the produce aisle. Grapefruit mooned at them. The pears had sly little puckering faces. There were apples polished like headlights. Heaps of green things, cucumbers and celery and mops of spinach. They were nothing you could imagine inside of you.

"Are you eating enough vegetables, Harve? Roughage? Antioxidants? Important stuff at our age."

Local Forecast ran his cart into a pyramid of cantaloupes and stood there, trying to remember. Lettuce bread.

"How about some oranges? Vitamin C."

Local Forecast shook his head politely and righted the cart. He fumbled with a lettuce, then decided against it. The store had too many lights and big slick puddles of shine lay all over the floor. He ended up at the meat counter, clutching the edge of the case as if it was the rail of a ship. There were trays of pink, skinned-looking things down there in the frosty air.

The voice was at his elbow again. "Lean meat and nothing fried. That's the ticket."

Local Forecast waved a hand, the way you'd brush at a fly.

"Harvey, don't you remember who I am?"

He stared up at the pink face until eyes came out from behind the glasses. Two wriggled eyebrows and an upper lip scraped as clean as the veal cutlets in front of him. Ed.

He must have said it out loud because the stranger (Ed?) pumped his face up and down. "That's right. Ed Pauley. Sure. You remember. I've known you ever since high school. Time marches on."

Time marched on. Local Forecast could hear it making gravelly sounds while he thought about School. He had it in a book somewhere at home. Mostly he remembered yawning. Luxurious, ear-splitting yawns that squeezed tears out of the corners of his eyes. There was a lot of yellow afternoon light and chalk dust hanging suspended in the slanting rays. His slumping behind polishing the softened wood of the desk. Rows of necks ahead of him. More yawning.

"The glory days," Ed said. "We were football conference champs three years running. Football wasn't your sport, was it, Harve? You were more of a track-and-field guy."

Breathing through his mouth and his lungs filling up with pain. Legs on fire. But was he running to something or away?

"Harve? Wait for me."

Ed pushed his cart double-time to catch up. "What's this, a race?"

Local Forecast was looking straight at the green cans, so he put some in his cart.

"I sure as heck hope you have a cat."

He kept talking alking alking alking, but Local Forecast wasn't listening. School came before the Weather, he was sure of it. And other things had happened in between. Were they in a book too?

He put some more things in his cart, gave the checkergirl money and she gave him money back. Brown pennies; he turned them so the Lincoln heads all faced the same direction, then he put them in his pocket. He walked down the going-home street, trying to get his mind around a thought that was like a stone in his shoe. It was about Football Ed turning into Old Ed and time marching on.

Back home. He dumped his groceries in the kitchen and turned up the sound on the Weather. Red Woman was standing in front of a map of India, a place that didn't interest him much because it was always hot and always the same flat green-blue. The only really good weather was Local. He got the book for School down from its shelf. It was sticky maroon leather with white letters on it: THE BULLDOG, 1949. There was a cartoon bulldog shouting through a megaphone. The book flopped open to one page, like it always did, and he lifted it up to his nose to see.

It was a boy in trackandfield clothes. His arm was hauled back and there was a whaddyacallit. Javelin. He was throwing a javelin on a black-and-white day in 1949. Local Forecast studied it, then rearranged the book on the coffee table so that the javelin was going west to east, the way the Weather traveled.

The boy in the picture had shiny hair and a smile that lifted up one side of his mouth. His bare arms and legs were ropey with muscle, pointing in all directions, like he was trying to scramble out of his clothes. Local Forecast rapped the top of his bald head with his knuckles. Knock knock. He unzipped his pants and regarded his legs, all fattypale and sad. Look at that. But there was the name under the picture: HARVEY SLOAN.

So the boy in the picture was the old Harvey, who was really young. And he, Local Forecast, was the new Harvey, who was really old. No wonder he got so confused. The boy in the picture was aiming the javelin at the farthest point he could see, which was 1949. Somehow it must have kept going and going, because it found him everytime he opened the book. This old-young Harvey must have wondered how everything would turn out. "It's OK, really," Local Forecast told him. "We've got a house now, and Fat Cat, and the Forecast comes on every ten minutes."

But there was more to it than that, he knew. He was leaving things out. He knew he was and it made him feel guilty. It was a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the Living God no no no no southeast winds five to ten miles an hour barometric pressure twenty-nine point eight six and falling.

There were other people in the book too, Football Ed and pretty girls. If you made a book of them now, they would all be old. He knew what came after old.

After old, they closed the book on you. That's the story of my life, people said. Everybody had their own book. Beginning, middle, end of story. Then Uh-Oh. That's what people said. Not that anybody ever came back to tell about it, except maybe Jesus and he didn't stay very long. You probably weren't allowed to come back. It was a terrible thing.

All the storybook of his life he was afraid. He forgot why. He was just a scairdy. They'd tried to beat it out of him. It was a terrible thing to no a terrible no no.

He stood up, forgetting that he had his pants undone, had to stop and hitch them up. What if it was all just another kind of forecast, a prediction nobody checked up on?

He kept very still. The television chattered away. What if it was just them trying to boss everything? The way they had it set up, Heaven sounded like more School, and that was if you even got in. In Heaven you still had to be you. Oh, he was tired of he. Of trying to remember and trying to forget. It all weighed you down so. He hadn't led a good life. Box of snakes no no no no patches of heavy dense fog, visibility less than a quarter of a mile.

Say you could forget even about forgetting, once your poor old leaky body quit on you. He was something clear and cold, like the jet stream, his mouth full of blue roaring. Whambang! Or just a little ruffle of wind over warm Pacific water, wind that pulled the water right up into it. Then something gave it a push and it meandered toward California. Stopped to spit snow on the near side of the Sierras. Sailed right over the Rockies, really something now, a genuine System, leaving green tracks all across the map. It tore up a chunk of eastern Colorado and sent a whole plateful of lightning rattling down on Nebraska. Why, it might even end up in You Are Here, setting off sirens, then raining itself out somewhere over the Ohio valley.

He didn't see why it couldn't be that way. Everything explained in terms of wind and water and temperature. Pure and simple. He wanted to tell the young man in the picture that a great many sad things would happen but that it would turn out all right. He wanted to tell his old man self the same thing. He wanted to catch that javelin at the end of its perfect rainbow arc. All you had to do was concentrate.

But later that day, watching the southwestern sky turn the color of steel and the dogwood leaves show their pale undersides in the shrilling wind, he wasn't so sure. He was still afraid. And would there still be Weather, if he wasn't here to watch it?

Copyright © 2002 by Jean Thompson

Reading Group Guide

A Simon & Schuster
Reading Group Guide
Wide Blue Yonder
Like all my books, Wide Blue Yonder began with something small -- the idea of a man watching the Weather Channel -- and grew to fill a space. Early on I knew who Uncle Harvey would be: innocent, damaged, isolated. Once I found a language for the dialogue of his inner life, many of the specifics about him seemed to follow naturally. Of course he would live in a run-down house with a spoiled cat, of course he would grow a haphazard garden, eat ice cream straight out of the carton, and so on. When I tried to imagine who else might be involved with such an unsocial character, I naturally thought of family, and then invented a health crisis that would cause the family to intervene. Josie and her mother, Elaine, and all the secondary characters that branch off from them, derive from that basic plot necessity. Rolando Gottschalk, of course, is the wild card, a force of will, personality, and nature, that disrupts the expected course of events and, I hope, expands the book's scope.
The wonderful thing about the Weather Channel, for Harvey and I suppose anyone else who watches it, is that you can sit alone in your own living room and feel like a participant in matters of global import. I wanted to make that connection between individual lives, even seemingly insignificant lives, and the metaphysical. Harvey constructs his own version of the afterlife, while Elaine ponders the requirements for happiness, Josie decides the purpose of living is love, and Rolando berates the universe for causing his rage and pain. What I like best about novels, Wide Blue Yonder or any other, is the opportunity to give such abstract ideas features and flesh, make them move and talk and surprise us.
Discussion Points
1. "There was always Weather. And every minute there was a new miracle," we learn in the opening passage of Wide Blue Yonder. What does the novel have to say about changeability of natural elements and the human condition?
2. Harvey has an unusual relationship with the Weather Channel. What sustenance does Harvey find in its programming? What purpose does it serve in his life? How do others perceive Harvey's interaction with the Weather Channel? Do these perceptions change at all? If so, how?
3. We witness characters in Wide Blue Yonder struggling with avoidance -- of reality, responsibility, even mortality. What are they afraid of and how, if at all, do they come to terms with these fears over the course of the novel?
4. Spoken word and silence each figure prominently in Wide Blue Yonder. Which characters rely most heavily on verbal expression? Is this tactic successful for these individuals? Discuss the role that silence plays throughout the book. Who is silent, and what consequences follow from this state of being? How do the silent people communicate with others?
5. The novel explores the connection between communication and love, both filial and romantic. As we meet the various characters and watch their relationships evolve, how does communication function in each instance?
6. Examine how Thompson has structured the novel. How does its structure relate to its various themes? Consider the narrative point of view.
7. "You know, Frank, I don't think of Harvey as crazy. More like he's on this different plane where there aren't any good or bad people, just good or bad weather," Elaine comments. What light do the characters Harvey, Mitch, and Rolando shed on the question of morality? What other moral issues does Wide Blue Yonder address? In the world Thompson has created, what determines if someone is good or bad? Is it possible for an individual to change?
8. Discuss the significance of Josie's relationship with the Abraham Lincoln statues in Springfield, Illinois. What cultural connotations does Lincoln carry for Americans? How do these ideas intersect with the themes of the novel?
9. Talk about the varying portraits of women (Josie, Elaine, Rosa, Teeny) in Wide Blue Yonder.
10. Family is an important corollary to the discussion of women. Describe the different families that we meet throughout the novel. Would you consider them emblematic of American society? How does each of the female characters influence the nature of her family and how the unit fares as part of a larger social structure?
11. Wide Blue Yonder contrasts the role of people as individuals and as members of society. On many levels power defines our society. What power hierarchies has Thompson set up within the novel? What forms does power take? Discuss the importance of race and class to the story. What significance, if any, does Elaine's factory in India have?
12. How is intelligence defined and perceived in Wide Blue Yonder? Discuss the different forms it takes and how each of these forms is valued.
13. Discuss how Wide Blue Yonder challenges us to reexamine our assumptions about several core paradigms: sanity and insanity, happiness and discontent, love and hate.

About The Author

Marion Ettlinger

Jean Thompson is a novelist and short story writer. Her works include the novels A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl, She Poured Out Her Heart, The Humanity Project, The Year We Left Home, City Boy, Wide Blue Yonder, The Woman Driver, and My Wisdom and the short story collections The Witch and Other Tales Re-Told, Do Not Deny Me, Throw Like a Girl, Who Do You Love (a National Book Award finalist), Little Face and Other Stories, and The Gasoline Wars. Thompson’s short fiction has been published in many magazines and journals, including the New Yorker, and anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize. Thompson has been the recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, among other accolades, and has taught creative writing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Reed College, Northwestern University, and other colleges and universities. She lives in Urbana, Illinois.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (January 1, 2003)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743229586

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Raves and Reviews

The New York Times Book Review Lisa Zeidner Detonates a whole fireworks of happy endings -- flares of hope and success so exuberant that the book almost seems to require a warning label.

Deirdre Donahue USA Today Wide Blue Yonder offers precisely the kind of beautifully crafted, intelligent, imaginative writing that serious readers crave....Each sentence deserves to be appreciated.

Andrew Roe San Francisco Chronicle Wide Blue Yonder reaffirms Thompson's stature as one of our most lucid and insightful writers.

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