The Wonder by Emma Donoghue & I Will Send Rain by Rae Meadows

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This month, we present two fascinating historical novels by two eloquent and acclaimed writers. I Will Send Rain is Rae Meadows’ fourth novel; The Wonder is Emma Donoghue’s most recent of an extensive list of historical and contemporary works. The 2015 film Room, adapted from Donoghue’s novel and starring Brie Larson, received four Academy Award® nominations.

The truth was bent a little bit. Okay, so it was mangled. Warped beyond anything that might remotely be real. Wrapped up in a colossal liar-liar-pants-on-fire conflagration. The truth was nowhere near the lie you told to save face, to save feelings, or as in the new novel The Wonder by Emma Donoghue, to save a life.

Lib Wright was so angry, she could hardly breathe. She was told that she would be handsomely paid and put up, which was true, but she was also told that her skills as a nurse were essential, which was a lie. All those years of working in a field hospital in the Crimean War, all the time spent learning from the great Miss Nightingale, all the hours spent on patient care, and these Irish villagers were telling her that her assignment was to be little more than jailer.

Anna O’Donnell, they said, was 11 years old and hadn’t had a bite of food for four months. She consumed water by the spoonful, which was to say sparingly, and skeptics had come around. To prove that the child’s feat was a miracle of God, a committee had hired Lib and an elderly nun to watch the girl’s every movement for two weeks. Anna didn’t need nursing care. She didn’t need Lib.

But nevermind. Miss N had taught Lib to finish a task and her task was not merely to report her observations in respect to Anna, but to reveal the little shammer for what she was. Surely, no child can live without sustenance, and Lib aimed to get to the bottom of it all.

But it wouldn’t be easy. Anna was a sweet, gentle child with a devotion to God and an eagerness to please. Many times during her eight-hour shift, Lib heard the child’s prayers and saw her playing with her holy cards, but she never saw her eat a bite. A miracle? No, it was obvious that Anna was in distress.

As she’s done in many of her past novels, author Emma Donoghue takes a snip of something true (yes, there were real Fasting Girls throughout history) and spins a tale around it. The great appeal is in Donoghue’s main character, a no-nonsense, self-assured woman who becomes someone else before us as the story unspools. Add in a hint of magic that seems, even to some of its characters, to be terribly out of place and you’ve got a novel that grabs and an ending that’s perfect. You’re going to love The Wonder. It’s a straight-up edge-of-your-chair read.

Rain, rain, go away. That never worked, did it? You could chant those four words all you want, trying to keep your picnic from being ruined, but the sky opened up and there you were. Rain, rain, go away, unless, as in I Will Send Rain by Rae Meadows, that’s the kind of storm you really need.

Another day of 100-degree weather. That was Annie Bell’s second thought, as she eased herself out of bed, off the sweat-soaked sheet and, away from her sleeping husband, Samuel. It would be 100 degrees again today, just like it had been forweeks.

Her first thought had been of the baby she’d lost ten years before. Annie often wondered what Eleanor would be like, and it confounded her that Samuel never thought about their second-born. And then there was Birdie.

Annie’s worried about her first child. At 15, Birdie seemed to be on the edge of all kinds of possibilities, and none at all. Birdie thought she was in love with Cy Mack, and Annie knew that Birdie dreamed of life in a city but Cy Mack was never going to take her away from the Oklahoma panhandle, that was for sure.

And Fred, sweet, mute, seven years old, frail and rather sickly. Nobody knew exactly why Fred couldn’t or wouldn’t talk, but Annie figured he’d say something when he was good and ready. She worried about him, too, but in the meantime, he was a good help for Samuel.

And Samuel! There were times when Annie remembered what she gave up to love him, and she wondered how they’d lost that love. She wasn’t sure of that, or anything, except that they needed rain. So when the sky turned black that hot afternoon and electricity filled the air, there was hope. But, of course, you know better. You know what happened to the Dust Bowl during the Dirty Thirties, and in I Will Send Rain, anticipation is half the story.

From the first paragraph, author Rae Meadows makes it difficult not to become mired in the Bells’ lives, and impossible not to watch in steely dread as each character falls apart slowly or becomes slightly insane. This dark novel felt Armageddon-like to me, and I was wrung out by the end but it’s been awhile since I’ve been as satisfied with a story as I was with this one. ■