George R. Stewart
1941 349 pages
“From Siberia the wide torrent of air was seeping southwards.” The cold Arctic air ran into warm moist air from the south, “wind drizzle, and showers were now arranged…. From the contact of north and south air had sprung something which had not been… that complex of forces began to develop and grow strong. A storm had been born.” So starts George R. Stewart’s novel in which the storm is the main character.
Storm was a best seller and a Book of the Month Club selection. Why, is obvious. It is a masterpiece and there is some trepidation for the reviewer on starting a review of Storm. How does one do justice to such a work, such a piece of literature?
Storm is a work of fiction. It is a novel but told as if the story was non-fiction. The main character is the storm, Maria, and the story follows Maria’s life, her effects and aftermath. It’s a wonderful telling of the storm and its effects. That’s one reason to read this book.
Another reason is the prose which is beautiful, evocative and sometimes even poetic.
There is a third aspect of this book that makes it good for readers here. Although the storm started across the Pacific and the story tells of the approach and arrival, a large portion of the story revolves around Donner Summit.
The biography of the short life of Maria is told in vignettes. Vignette follows vignette with each little story building suspense and connecting to something larger as the book goes on. The boys’ target shooting and using their last bullet will have an effect later on as will the chipmunk in the burrow and the rooting hog.
Those vignettes, featuring people, humanize the story. The vignettes come in bunches with one in a bunch building on the ones in the previous bunches. Each little story shows a different aspect of the storm’s effects on life and land. Each story builds through the book and some build suspense. Will the couple be found? Will the Streamliner make it? Will the Transcontinental survive the Sierra crossing? Will the dam collapse? Will the road stay open?
All of those alternating vignettes have minor characters in conflict with the storm. There are many because there are a lot of stories to tell: the Load Dispatcher for the Power and Light Company; the Junior Meteorologist, his supervisor, and the Old Master; the road superintendent; the railroad general manager; the Chief Service Officer at the airport; travelers; and the water manager. There are also some more minor characters: the ships at sea, the Clipper navigator overhead, telephone linemen, and a coyote.
The prose is wonderful. “…that great river of wind, the winter monsoon, at work pouring out the cold air from Siberia.” “With work to be done they [plow operators on Donner Summit] were as good-natured as fat puppies.” “With a sudden whir which rose at once to the an all-enveloping roar, the big machine was off. It vibrated and shook and pounded. The heavy windshield wipers seemed to labor frantically. Driver and swamper leaned anxiously forward.”
The description of a city scene as the storm arrives is vivid: “the flower-stand no longer glowed with sun-bright colors; the vendors did little business; they covered the blooms with water-proofs, and hoped for a better day. Newsboys no longer pre-empted the better corners; now they withdrew toward sheltered spots and guarded their papers against the wet…. On the sidewalks fewer people moved along. They no longer strode boldly, heads up and confident faces, as they had a few days before, when the Pacific High ruled the air… Now… they scurried along, uncomfortable, in costumes only partly adapted to rain. Men’s hats, dripping water, lost symmetry and spruceness; below overcoats, trouser legs collapsed damply; shoes lost all trace of shine, or disappeared beneath clumsy rubbers. Pink, green, and blue, women’s raincoats put up a brave front, but the color was infirm and chalky with no touch of gaiety. And below the raincoats, shoes and clammy silk stockings were spattered and muddy. The very faces of men and women were hidden beneath umbrellas; as people passed at the corners, the umbrellas clicked and tangled.”
Besides the main story of the storm some of the little stories tell about Donner Summit: life for the rotary plow operators and telephone operators; the beacon on the crag guiding planes; life at the highway maintenance building at the summit; and clearing Old 40 and keeping it open. Keeping Old 40 open was a challenge, a fight waged with each storm and sometimes the battle was lost, “…he pulled on the cigarette that feeling of deep depression came over him again. He had lost the road! The storm had been too much. It had worn down the men and beaten the machines.” To add to the challenge there were the stupid chainless drivers, broken shear pins, avalanches, and snowfall.
There are descriptions of Donner Summit in the 40’s too, “Along by Fox Farm [site of today’s Donner Summit Lodge] was a stretch of highway that was in pretty bad shape that night. A rotary was working on it. The men in the rotary could see next to nothing; the flying snow reflected the lights right back in their faces. They were feeling their way along from snowstake to snowstake. Then came a bang, and a jolt, and the shear-pin went.”
After 11 days the storm was done. “On the Pass, where old trapper Greenwood and hawk nosed Elisha Stevens first led the way, a gold sun in a blue sky shone dazzlingly on the fresh white snow. The cedars were dark green columns, powdered with shining crystals. Cars lined the highway. Costumed in red and blue, dark-goggles against the glare, the skiers moved swiftly across the snow… In the ski-tracks the light of sun, refracted among the snow-crystals, gleamed in ethereal blue… the skiers came up to play; but along the highway the men in the plows still worked on…. The road was safe and two lanes wide… On the railroad the trains moved freely, but there too the plows were busy… “ Crews had laid new track to replace the washout that stopped the Streamliner. Telephone crews had repaired the Transcontinental Lead. The chipmunk, “was warm, and had again sunk into a death-like slumber. At French-Bar Dam the water was no longer spilling over the top. Mrs. Martley mended the torn knees of her husband’s pants, wondering what in the world he could have scraped them against [he’d almost been trapped by falling water]. High above the Pass a plane moved from the east. Its metal glittered in the sunlight. It followed the steady hum of the Reno beam. The pilot looked down upon the far-stretching, snow-covered mountains –quiet, beautiful… he saw the highway and the railroad…. made out the faint trace of poles and sires. He passed the air-beacon on the crag…”
Donner Summit, 1941
“So we come, in less than a century, from the death dogged snow-shoers of the Donner Party to the carefree week0end skiers dotting the mountains-sides with bright costumes. Above the place where little Stanton sat to smoke his last pipe, Cisco beacon flashes out to Donner beacon. Where John Denton, plucky Yorkshireman, waited in the snow for death, the streamlined trains slide by. And over that camp where the poor emigrants ate the forbidden meat, the pilots of the wide-winged planes followed the whining Reno beam to Blue Canyon where - turning - they set their last course for the airports of the Bay”
“Why man, on Donner Pass you figure snow by feet, not inches.”
“U.S. 40 carried more traffic than any other road in the world.”
Donner Summit sign, 1941:
MOTORISTS PUT ON YOUR CHAINS.
WITHOUT CHAINS YOU ENDANGER
YOUR OWN LIFE AS WELL AS OTHERS.