“Summer of No Rain” By: Laura Hunter
“Summer of No Rain”
Author: Laura Hunter
Publisher: Bluewater Publications
Price: $18.95 (Paper)
Hunter’s New Novel Is Based on Horrific Eugenics Scandal
Laura Hunter’s title here evokes age-old feelings about the relationship between rain and fertility.
“April showers bring May flowers,” we have always known.
Less folksy is T. S. Eliot’s use of this trope in “The Wasteland.” He begins: “April is the cruelest month, …mixing memory and desire.” In the Wasteland, the king has received a genital wound and the realm, like the lord, is sterile, in spite of the spring rains, which mock with their promise of fertility.
“Summer of No Rain” is a novel about sterility, fertility, and heartless cruelty.
It opens in a sweltering, dry July of 1968 in the fictional hamlet of Hyssop, Alabama, located not far from Eufaula. The teller of this tale is Margaret Ann Odom, a woman now 62 years old. Margaret Ann Odom is a half-white, half-black girl living with her mother, M’dear. They have been given a little house in the middle of some cow pastures and a meager stipend by her white father, the rich married local baron, Hank Bullard.
Otherwise, mother irons clothes for a living.
Margaret Ann’s only friend is Bailey Renfroe, a corpulent neighbor boy.
At the segregated Gladstone Industrial and Trade School, mixed-race Margaret Ann fits in badly. She describes herself as “a dusky color, a little like honey.” She is sensitive about her hair, which is not as kinky as the hair of her friends, even though she tries to curl it.
A perfectly healthy girl, she is intelligent, alert and sensitive, lonely in the country, but secure in a close, loving relationship with her mom. Then a white lady, Claire Whitehurst, a newly minted and well-meaning social worker, shows up with an offer M’dear should refuse. Whitehurst offers to take Margaret Ann to a newly established free clinic for shots and vaccinations “to keep … [her] healthy,” free from measles and mumps, etc.
Ms. Whitehurst says: “I’ll see that Margaret Ann’s safe and in good hands at all times.” Irony does not begin to describe this travesty. Claire Whitehurst presents the permission papers and indicates where illiterate M’dear is to make her “X.”
Informed consent is a joke here.
The treatments at the clinic begin and the reader is instantly appalled. The doctor, named Graves, is cold, distant. The nurse is a sadist, reminiscent of Nurse Rached in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” As young Margaret Ann enters the clinic she notices cobwebs, a dingy sheet and syringes, not sanitary and labelled “Veterinary Type.”
With no preliminary examination or tests, the nurse commences giving Margaret Ann injections, in her arms, legs hips. Over several weeks, Margaret Ann develops boils, lumps, swelling, pain, bleeding. No one cares. The injections continue.
The nurse mentions to the doctor that these treatments for eugenics might not work. The child overhears and thinks she has the “blue jennies.”
The protagonist of this novel will suffer through the long dry summer and, as she told us in the beginning, will never marry because she was sterilized and “no man wants an empty vessel.”
Laura Hunter, after retiring from a long career as an educator, took up fiction writing with astonishing success. Her first novel, "Beloved Mother," 2016, set in Appalachia, won an award for best first novel and then the Grand Prize from Indie Book Awards. She followed this with a book of stories, "Southern Voices, " in 2019, set in Alabama, not far from Tuscaloosa.
It seems clear that Hunter was drawn to write this novel by the horrific eugenics case brought against The Family Practice Clinic of the Montgomery Community Action Committee by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1973, but this novel is not as successful and assured as her previous work.
The names, like the evil Dr. Graves and the hopelessly naive Claire Whitehurst, are too on-the-nose, and these characters, respectively, are too villainous and too innocent for realistic fiction. Likewise, some of the scenes, even if they accurately describe real events, approach melodrama. There are unexpected shifts in narrative voice.
Nevertheless, the novel has an undeniable emotional effect. As one reads, knowing what young Margaret Ann does not, there is no avoiding a feeling of horror and anger.
Sadly, this story is based on actual events which took place in 1968, yesterday, in Montgomery, right down the road.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.