This post is also available in: Spanish
By Jhon Sánchez
Summer is coming and even though I love the heat, sometimes I like the cold refreshing rain. I imagine myself walking along the rivulets and splashing water from the ponds. In the time of global warming, I also wish we could hire a rainmaker to make this possible. Set during The Great Depression, The Death of The Rainmaker, a historical mystery novel, reminds us of the desperate decisions that people made during a draught. I talked to Laurie Loewenstein about her novel.
Thank you, Laurie for accepting my invitation.
LL /My pleasure. I always enjoying talking books with a fellow writer and reader.
JS/ How did you end up writing fiction, and in specific, historical mystery, and why?
LL/ Books have been my best friends and constant companions since childhood. That is to say, I am a reader first and foremost. I have been a writer for most of my adult life – beginning with small daily newspapers where I composed obituaries and features articles. Later I worked as a public relations writer. In my 50s I want to try my hand at fiction and enrolled in the creative writing program at Wilkes University. I have gravitated to historical fiction because I have a passionate interest in the past and to the mystery genre because that is one of my favorites as a reader.
JS/ This is a historical mystery novel. Initially I thought that Vermillion was a real town in Oklahoma, but afterwards, realized that it wasn’t. How did you go about building the town in your mind?
LL/ I wanted the town to be planted in the heart of the Dust Bowl and settled on the Oklahoma Panhandle. The Dust Bowl roughly encompassed eastern Colorado, western Kansas, the Oklahoma Panhandle and northern Texas – an area known as the High Plains. To ensure as much accuracy as possible, I based Vermillion on the real town of Woodward, Ok. That way I could check census records of 1930, for example, and determine what kind of folks lived there and what they did for a living. I also studied photos of the period, listened to 1930s music and read diaries of farmwives.
JS/ The trigger event is a dust storm. Can you tell us more about that?
LL/ The massive duster is based on a real event. The Black Sunday Dust storm of April 1935 swept through the plains, turning the mid-day sky black and displacing 300 million tons of topsoil with 60 mile-per-hour winds. In places it was 4,000 feet high (about three times the height of the Empire State Building) and a hundred miles wide. During the Dust Bowl years the number of dust storms steadily increased from 14 in 1932 to 134 in 1937. Researching this storm it occurred to me that having a fictional murder take place during that midday blackout would be intriguing.
JS/ The Death of the Rainmaker sounds like a metaphor for today’s world with the increasing draughts and other alterations of climate. Did you choose this topic to call attention to the dangers of climate change?
LL/ No, I did not but I certainly hope it gives readers pause. I was initially moved to set my story in the Dust Bowl after reading the masterful The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. It won the 2006 National Book Award in nonfiction. Generally, scholars agree that the Dust Bowl was caused by the plowing up of the grass lands in prior decades combined with a drier than usual period in a dry area. I highly recommend Egan’s book.
JS/ Every narrator wants to tell a mystery. The end is always a magic moment where all the pieces come together, and all questions become resolve. Can you give us some clues to writing a good mystery?
LL/ I set out to write a traditional whodunit type of mystery. The elements of this form involve a murder, usually off the page, and an investigator solving the case. As a reader of mysteries, I expect a fair number of misleading clues (red herrings) and the possibility that I, the reader, have enough information to figure it out who did it on my own.
JS/ Let’s talk about the Civilian Conservation Corps. Can you explain to us what was the program and why it was necessary? Do we still need similar programs today?
LL/ The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was the first project out of the gate when Franklin D. Roosevelt went into office. Within a month of his inauguration, the CCC organization was up and running with the first young man enrolled within six weeks. I find the speed of this astonishing. CCC camps were eventually established in every state. Young men, whose families were on relief, were hired to plant trees, re-build dams, construct state park facilities, and fight forest fires. They were paid $30 a month, with $25 of that going to their family. The CCC was founded, in part, to address the 250,000 unemployed teenagers roaming the country at that time. It is my opinion that a program like the CCC, which provided young people with meaningful work and a paycheck, is needed today. Several states, California being the most prominent, have CCC-type programs today.
JS/ For me, the character of Carmine DiNapoli sounded similar to the young men who escape gang persecution in Center America. Do you agree?
LL/ Boys like Carmine, in the 1930s in the U.S., most commonly left home because their parents could no longer afford to feed and clothe them. The young men fleeing gang persecution in Central America face a much more dire situation, I think. However the end result is similar – both groups took to the road (or boxcar) to find a job and a purpose.
JS/ Another character, Temple, the sheriff, is a fair man but faces strong opposition to his reelection. While reading the novel, I asked myself if Temple was genuine about solving the crime or was he coming from political motivations. Do you agree citizens electing law enforcement? Or would this affect the candidates’ impartiality?
LL/ These are great questions, by the way. I’m really having to think! I intended Temple to be genuine about wanting to solve the case. I don’t think of him as a man who would compromise his integrity to win. The re-election worries were included to add tension. My feeling is that law enforcement officials should not be elected but hired by the county government based on professional qualifications.
JS/ I think your readers would love Etha. She’s intelligent, compassionate, stubborn and in general is different from other female characters in town. But she’s also a sad character. Can you comment about Etha and her role in the novel?
LL/ It was important to me that a strong woman be one of the novel’s protagonists. I wanted her to help solve the case on equal footing with her husband. A character who was not born or brought up in the town but joins the community as an adult has the advantage of interpreting what she observes from the side. I also wanted to explore how someone not from the town might come to think of it as home after many years.
JS/ Throughout the novel, we’re heading towards a sad moment: The auction of the farm. Our protagonist doesn’t want to provide security for it. We don’t want him to do it, but he has to because he’s the sheriff. This is similar to what people experienced recently in the USA with the foreclosure of their homes during housing bubble of 2006 to 2012. Given what we have learned in the past, what can a community do today to prevent one of its members from losing their home and often their means of survival?
LL/ This is a difficult question. My gut tells me that protection of consumers should be the primary focus of government regulation of banks and other financial institutions and I don’t believe that is currently the case.
JS/ What’s your next project?
LL/ I am writing a sequel to Death of a Rainmaker.
JS/ Wouldn’t be fair to say to our readers “Please…don’t kill your rainmaker?”
LL/ In the larger sense, that “the rainmaker” is equated with the balance of nature required to sustain all creatures, I would say “yes.”
About the authors
Laurie Loewenstein, a fifth generation Midwesterner, is a descendent of farmers, butchers and salesmen. She grew up in central and western Ohio. She has a BA and MA in history. Loewenstein was a reporter, feature and obituary writer for several small daily newspapers. In her fifties, she returned to college for an MA in Creative Writing. Her first novel, Unmentionables (2014), was selected as a Midwest Connections pick and received a starred review from the Library Journal. Her current book, Death of a Rainmaker (2018), is the first of a mystery series set in the 1930s Dust Bowl.
Loewenstein is an instructor at Wilkes University’s Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing where she co-teaches Research for Writers and coordinates the Writing Resource Center.
After living in eastern Pennsylvania for many years, Loewenstein now resides in Columbia, Maryland, with her husband, Steven Goldfarb.
Jhon Sánchez: A native of Colombia, Mr. Sánchez arrived in the United States seeking political asylum. Currently, a New York attorney, he’s a JD/MFA graduate. His most recent short stories published are Pleasurable Death available on The Meadow, The I-V Therapy Coffee Shop of the 21st Century available on Bewildering Stories and “‘My Love, Ana,’—Tommy” available on https://www.fictionontheweb.co.uk/ . In July 2019, The Write Launch will release his novelette The DeDramafi, which will be also reprinted by Storylandia in 2021. He was awarded the Horned Dorset Colony for 2018 and the Byrdcliffe Artist Residence Program for 2019.